LAKELAND -- Late Tuesday night, after her team had overcome 29 points and 13 rebounds from the top-ranked player in the state, Coral Springs Charter coach Ericka Haney chatted with reporters while one of her beige pumps rested in her left hand.
“My feet are tired,” Haney said simply.
The symbolism should not be ignored, however.
Her Panthers (24-7) could be the basketball equivalent to Cinderella, and the shoe might just fit perfectly Thursday at 4:35 p.m. when CSC faces another monumental challenge.
CSC will play Jacksonville Ribault (30-0), one of only two undefeated teams in Florida, for the Class 4A girls’ basketball state title.
Last year, CSC made it to the state semifinals for the first time in the program’s history, losing by two points to Fort Myers Dunbar.
“We had a goal in mind since last year,” said Haney, who was an assistant on that team. “We came here to win a state championship.”
Now CSC will have to face a Ribault program that has won more girls’ basketball state titles (eight) than any school in Florida – not that it matters to the Panthers.
After all, the Panthers have already overcome the loss of Aisha Edwards, a 5-6 point guard who was ranked third in the state in the junior class by ESPN. She was dismissed from the team due to discipline issues, according to Haney.
On Tuesday, CSC showed it can still rise to a challenge, rallying from a six-point, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Atlantic 53-50.
CSC was led by Emily Williams, a 5-5 junior guard who scored 24 points – more than twice her season’s average. She made 9 of 18 shots, including a pair of three-pointers, to power the Panthers.
“She is the heart and soul of our team,” Haney said. “I get on her sometimes about taking plays off, but she works hard.”
Emily Williams overshadowed her more famous namesake, Atlantic’s Ronni Williams, who had a huge second half with 24 points and made 10 of 19 shots overall despite missing her first five.
Ronni Williams, a 6-2 forward and a Florida Gators recruit, came in 13th on ESPN’s list of the nation’s top prospects.
“Our strategy was to double-team her,” CSC guard Morgan Smellie said, “because one on one was probably going to kill us.”
After scoring just five points in the first half, Ronni Williams finally came alive with a 15-point third quarter.
It was toward the end of that third quarter that the game nearly slipped away from CSC. Atlantic (24-6) trailed 37-35 with about 30 seconds left in the quarter. That’s when Ronni Williams, who had been playing in the post, decided to take the ball 30 feet from the basket. She drove all the way to the hoop, where CSC’s Jade Wyatt tried to draw the charge.
The call, though, went in favor of Ronni Williams, who made the basket. Wyatt, unhappy with the call, was hit with a technical, which meant an additional two free throws and possession of the ball.
“I was there!” Wyatt said when asked what she uttered to get hit by the technical foul.
Added Wyatt: “That call killed me. I’ve taken many charges before, and I knew I was there.”
It turned out to be a four-point play for Atlantic, giving the Sharks the lead and momentum.
Still, CSC did not quit and trailed by just two points, 47-45, with 70 seconds left. That’s when eighth-grader Chelsie Hall made a layup to tie the score.
A free throw by Williams was answered by a layup from Smellie, giving CSC a 49-48 lead with 52 seconds left.
With 38 seconds left, Emily Williams hit a bank shot to put the Panthers up 51-48.
Ronni Williams then missed a jumper but followed her shot with a bucket to make it 51-50 with 24 seconds left.
Hall was fouled with 16 seconds left. She missed the free throw, but RonniWilliams, after driving the length of the court, missed a layup. Lehja Smith grabbed the rebound with 7.4 seconds left.
She missed the free throw, but Hall grabbed the long rebound. Ronni Williams bumped her with 5.9 seconds left and fouled out on the play.
Hall made both free throws, even though the second one bounced high off the back rim to make it 53-50 with 5.9 seconds left.
“Nothing scares [Hall],” Haney said. “She was going up against an All-American, and she didn’t care.”
Atlantic had one last gasp but missed a frantic three-pointer to seal the deal for CSC.
“There’s no reason to doubt us,” Smellie said of her team’s surprising run to the state final. “With or without Aisha, we have each other, and that’s never going to change.”
Wyatt said she never took the skeptics seriously.
“In my head, I just had to laugh,” she said. “Honestly, I know Thursday we’re going to win.”