Northeast guard Cabria Lee thought the ball was going in.
So did her coach Zach Gillion.
And for the Hurricanes that meant an early exit from the state tournament Thursday following a 47-46 loss to Fort Walton Beach at The Lakeland Center in a Class 7A semifinal.
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“I really thought it was going in,” said Lee, a junior point guard. “The defense gave me an opening and I just took it all the way.”
With 6.4 seconds left and no timeouts, Lee took an in-bounds pass and dribbled the length of the court, evading defenders and finding a lane to the basket. She got the shot off in time, but the ball hit the backboard and then grazed the side of the rim and out.
Northeast (13-9) was left without a trip to the state finals for the second year in a row.
And this time, Gillion would have been able to coach.
Gillion, a Seventh-Day Adventist, a religion that observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, couldn’t coach last year’s state final when the Hurricanes lost to Fort Myers.
The Florida High School Athletic Association moved this Saturday’s final to 8 p.m. to accommodate the Hurricanes.
“I’m happy the FHSAA put us in the position for me to be out there had we won,” Gillion said. “It didn’t turn out that way, but I’m still happy about this season.”
Northeast trailed by nine in the fourth quarter before using a 7-0 run to narrow the gap. Kandis Taylor’s score with 26.9 seconds left tied the game at 46. But Yvonne Ford drove to the basket, drew a foul and then hit one free throw to put Fort Walton Beach (25-3) in front for good.
Well before Lee’s would-be game winner missed, Northeast was beaten soundly in the rebounding category by the Vikings.
The Hurricanes were out-rebounded 46-27 overall and 22-8 on offensive boards.
“That was the only stat I wrote on the board [in the locker room] after the game,” Gillion said. “It’s been our Achilles heel all year and they did a great job exploiting that.”
Northeast altered its style of play at the start of the season after its top frontcourt players graduated in order to accentuate the productivity of their talented guards. The Hurricanes started the season 1-6.
But following their victory over Class 9A semifinalist Boca Raton at the Florida Prospects Tournament in December, Gillion said everything clicked for his team. Northeast won 12 of 14 games prior to Thursday’s season-ending loss. And this despite playing a very short rotation with only an eight-player roster and guard Isabella Lopez playing despite a fractured hand.
“It was her last game and she said she wasn’t sitting this one out,” Gillion said. “It took some adjusting early on as far as our system and personalities. After we gelled, everything came together.”
NE (13-9): Pluviose 9, Lee 7, Taylor 13, Austin 10, Lopez 7. FWB (25-3): McLeod 6, Ford 11, Payton 17, Davenport 3, Gilliam 8, Turner 2. Half: FWB 16-15. Three-pointers: Austin 2, Gilliam 2, Pluviose, Taylor, Lopez, Payton, Davenport. Rebounds: Ford 15. Assists: Taylor 4. Steals: Payton 3.
If you go
What: State girls’ basketball finals.
Where: The Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime Street, Lakeland.
When: Through Saturday.
Admission: $10 per day; Parking: $10.
Thursday’s results — Class 6A semifinals: Jacksonville Ribault 66, American Heritage 37; St. Petersburg Lakewood 74, Ponte Vedra 59; Class 7A semifinals: Fort Walton Beach 47, Northeast 46; Fort Myers 56, Orlando Edgewater 28; Class 3A final: Tallahassee FAMU 46, Tampa Carrollwood 37.
Friday’s schedule — Class 8A semifinals: South Broward vs. Fleming Island, noon; Winter Haven vs. Naples Gulf Coast, 2; Class 9A semifinals: Ferguson vs. Wekiva, 4; Boca Raton vs. Orlando Olympia, 6; Class 4A final: Miami Country Day vs. Jacksonville Providence, 8.
Saturday’s schedule — Class 5A final: Florida High vs. Jones, 10 a.m.; Class 6A final: Jacksonville Ribault vs. Lakewood, 12:30; Class 9A final: 3; Class 8A final: 5:30; Class 7A final: Fort Walton Beach vs. Fort Myers, 8.