With his Seminoles down by five points to Booker late in Friday night’s Class 6A-Region 3 final, legendary Southeast coach John Harder may have had good reason to fear that his career might come to an end on the court bearing his name.
That was when Southeast senior Daija Snipes used an opportunity to deliver a stern message to her teammates during a timeout in a game that Southeast needed to win for its first trip to the state final four since 2015.
“The last thing I said in that huddle was that we aren’t losing,” Snipes said. “I made sure everybody knew that they needed to bring their A game back to the court.”
The Seminoles did just that over the final two minutes. Southeast took the lead on a layup by Amoni Waters with about a minute left in the game and the Seminoles defense held the Tornadoes off the board in the final 66 seconds for a 37-36 victory.
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A 3-pointer by Kayla McDuffie was the only field goal Southeast could muster in the opening nine minutes of the game. Snipes broke the drought from the floor with a layup off a Booker turnover, and buckets from Waters and Perryauna Yomans capped an 11-1 Southeast run in the middle stages of the second quarter.
Snipes converted a late jumper that gave Southeast a 13-10 lead after a half that featured strong defense on both ends of the floor.
“Championships are won with defense,” Harder said. “I believe John Wooden said that ... and now John Harder is saying that.”
Southeast went up by six after Snipes drained a 3-pointer near the halfway point of the third quarter. That’s when Booker started hitting 3-pointers – much like the Tornadoes did in their 64-62 win over the Seminoles earlier this season. Kaliyah Newey’s trey at the buzzer gave Booker a 27-22 lead.
Snipes delivered her message between the quarters and her Seminole teammates responded. Southeast eventually tied the game at 31-31 on a layup by Snipes – who finished with a game-high 14 points – and briefly took a lead on a bucket by Charmane Murray.
Booker scored the go-ahead bucket on a three by Kaitlin Bell with 1:20 left. Waters scored 14 seconds later, and the Southeast defense stuffed a last-gasp shot from Booker to set off a wild celebration on Harder Court.
“This is my seventh time going to the final four and it never gets old,” said Harder, who has coached Southeast’s girls team since 1985 and will bookend his career with trips to the state final four. “We held on with some great defense, and defense won this tonight.”
Harder’s team played all three of its regional games at home for the first time in his career. He tipped his hat to his rivals from the south.
“Both of these games with Booker this season were competitive down to the last minute, and I couldn’t be prouder of both teams,” he said. “Booker came to play and they hit some nice shots when they needed to. You have Southeast from Naples to St. Petersburg and Booker from Sarasota from Tampa – and this regional final ends up being a neighborhood game. I’m just ecstatic to be at the top of the neighborhood.”
Southeast has a chance to give Harder the chance to end his career the same way it began: with a state title. His other championships came in 1990 and 2014.
The Seminoles will open play in the Class 6A state semifinals at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in Lakeland.
“I’m just so happy to be here,” Harder said. “God has been good to me all these years. This has been a special team and a special year. To be at home and win a regional title in your final game is something you couldn’t have scripted. You couldn’t write a better Cinderella story.”
In other action Friday night, Braden River saw its hopes of making a first-ever trip to the state final four dashed with a 77-66 loss to Tampa Bay Tech in the Class 8A-Region 3 final. The Pirates close the best season in school history with a 24-2 record.