LAKELAND -- Miami Country Day felt it had the perfect combination this season to break the school’s state championship drought.
But Thursday night, the Spartans couldn’t put the whole package together and watched its girls’ dream basketball season end with a 44-40 loss to Daytona Beach Father Lopez in the Class 3A state final at The Lakeland Center. The loss ended the school’s hopes of winning what would have been its first state title in any sport.
The Spartans (28-2), who led by as many as five points in the fourth quarter, lost the lead for good with four minutes left despite forcing 21 turnovers in the game.
Junior guard Danielle Minott came up with the last one by making her fifth steal of the game on an inbounds pass with 11 seconds left.
Minott drove to the basket for the potential game-tying score, but her running shot bounced off the backboard and rim and was collected by Simone Brown. Minott then fouled out of the game and Brown proceeded to make two free throws to seal the outcome.
“I got the steal, but it just didn’t fall,” Minott said. “I rushed the shot a little bit. We started to get our way, but as the seconds ticked by, we all rushed shots. That last one, I could have held it a little longer and made something better happen and maybe send it to overtime.”
Father Lopez (27-5), which won its first state championship since 2005, went 8 for 8 from the free-throw line in the final 2 minutes 12 seconds as it gradually took a four-point lead with 22.9 seconds left. Senior forward Onika Swaby made a pair of free throws to set up the decisive possession.
“The play couldn’t have been set up any better,” Miami Country Day coach Ochiel Swaby said. “We had the right defensive call and she made it and went for the layup. It didn’t go in. That’s life and basketball sometimes.”
Minott, who played at state last season for Miramar Parkway Academy, didn’t attribute the quick shot or the lack of clutch shooting by the team to simply playing in the state finals. Minott finished with 20 points and six rebounds.
Miami Country Day, however, shot 15 of 55 (27.3 percent) and went 2 for 14 from three-point range. The Spartans were held to their second-lowest score of the season.
“[Father Lopez] was being aggressive like we were,” Onika Swaby said. “We had to stay disciplined, but we were pressing and we let them get behind us.”
The Spartans led for most of the game but were never able to fully take control of a contest that was tied four times, including twice in the fourth quarter.
Minott stole a ball and converted a fastbreak just after Swaby hit a pair of free throws to give Country Day a 34-29 lead early in the fourth quarter. But Brown hit a three-pointer and moments later Ashley Folsom put back a missed shot to tie the game with 4:34 left.
Ochiel Swaby said he expected Folsom, who scored 18 points and had 10 rebounds, to be a factor. But Brown’s 17 points and seven rebounds gave Father Lopez an extra component that hurt Miami Country Day on both ends of the court.
“We had a lot of missed assignments,” Swaby said. “... As we went down the stretch, we just had no idea where we needed to be, and on offense we became stagnant and couldn’t make shots.”
Miami Country Day also had a chance to develop a cushion right before halftime. Breanna Blot broke a 16-all tie with a layup and drew a foul. After she missed her free throw, Minott rushed in and put back the miss. Blot came back and scored off a steal to give the Spartans a 22-16 lead. Folsom answered at the other end by drawing a foul and making both free throws.
“This was our first experience with this team, and it shouldn’t be easy,” said Swaby of his team which only graduates two seniors, Onika, his daughter, and Blot. “We’re going to give it a go again next year and see what happens.”
FL (27-5): Folsom 18, Brown 17, Panaggio 2, Cranshaw 7. MCD (28-2): Minott 20, B. Blot 7, Swaby 4, Mackenzie 4, Lewis 5. Half: MCD 22-18. Fouled out: Minott. Three-pointers: Brown 2, Cranshaw, Minott, Lewis. Rebounds: Folsom, Swaby 10. Assists: Cranshaw 5. Steals: Minott, Lewis 5.