LAKELAND -- At the start of the season, Norland coach Carla Harris made a picture puzzle of the Vikings’ first state championship ring from 2009.
Harris gave each player and coach a piece with a message.
“I’m always a crazy, creative thinker, and the point of that was that if each one of us did our part, we’d bring a [championship ring] like it home,” said Harris, who along with her assistant wore them on lanyards during Friday’s game.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they couldn’t solve the puzzle at The Lakeland Center.
After leading by as many as 13 points, Norland watched its hopes of a state championship slip away during a 39-34 loss to Pensacola Pine Forest in a Class 6A state semifinal.
“It was tough because I felt like we had the game under control,” Harris said. “We didn’t close out the game.”
Norland (17-10), which was making its third consecutive trip to the state final four, did so this season with only two seniors — forward Kayla Roberts and guard Donneal Ford.
Roberts dominated during a low-scoring first half, scoring 15 of Norland’s 17 points and helping the Vikings take a 17-8 lead.
But Pine Forest (26-2) intensified its full-court pressure and held Roberts to four points in the second half.
“The pressure was on the entire game, but I think where [Pine Forest] was playing tight in the first half, we were tight in the second half,” Harris said. “We didn’t finish plays, and we became hesitant.”
Roberts, a Norfolk State signee, was one of only three Norland players who scored in the game along with Ford, an FAU signee who had nine points, and sophomore Tyana Williams, who had six points.
Pine Forest, meanwhile, found the rhythm it lacked in the first half and shot 57 percent over the final two quarters after shooting only 21 percent in the first. The Eagles used an 8-0 surge to cut Norland’s lead to 23-20. A three-pointer by Jymetrea Jones gave Pine Forest its first lead at 30-28 early in the fourth. Norland tied the game three times but was never able to regain the advantage.
“They got us out of our element in the second half, and we started rushing everything,” Roberts said.
The Vikings committed 10 turnovers in the second half and missed numerous layups, including a couple of uncontested putback attempts in the closing minutes. Pine Forest pulled away by scoring the final five points, including three clutch free throws combined from Laneisha Jeans and Britney Snowden.
“We implemented a mandatory layup drill late in the season because it had been a problem early in the year,” Harris said. “I thought we had fixed that, but [Friday] we just finished the layups.”
NOR (17-10): K. Roberts 19, Williams 6, Ford 9. PF (26-2): Jones 9, Snowden 9, Purifoy 13, Jeans 2, Carter 6. Half: N 17-8. Three-pointers: Roberts, Jones, Purifoy. Rebounds: Snowden 10. Assists: Purifoy 4. Steals: Ford 6.