The task was a tall one for the Nova Titans girls basketball team when they woke up Saturday morning.
After struggling early but managing to grind out a semifinal win the night before and land themselves in the Class 8A state title game, in front of them was a talent-laden Winter Haven team ranked No. 15 in the nation (Max Preps) and two-time reigning state champions.
And when it was over, Winter Haven was a three-time state champ as Nova, after a good first quarter, struggled the rest of the way, dropping a 56-45 decision to the Blue Devils at the RP Funding Center.
And the game wasn’t even that close as the Titans, whose only loss coming into Saturday was a regular season defeat to the very same team, went on a 10-2 run to close out the game after Winter Haven (31-1) had cleared the bench with 1:35 left.
“A great ball club over there,” said Nova coach Jason Hively of Winter Haven.
“They’re huge and physical and I’m sure they had about five D-I players on the floor. There’s a reason they were back-to-back and now three-time state champs. You just can’t give a team like that as many opportunities as we did and expect to come out on top.”
Hively watched as his Titans (30-2) got out to a great start in the first quarter, not backing down to Winter Haven’s big front line led by Rutgers commit Tyia Singleton and led 11-9 after one.
But the tide of the game changed right there when guard Erin Gutierrez picked up her second foul, forcing her to the bench. Not only is Gutierrez the team’s leading scorer (18 ppg.) but the Nova’s best ball handler as well.
The Blue Devils pounced on the opportunity, employing a full-court press. Not only did it cause six straight turnovers but the Titans never even got the ball past half court. The pressure defense helped Winter Haven go on a 7-0 Winter Haven run and take a 16-11 lead.
“That was obviously a very big moment,” said Hively. “We had a great first quarter, but we just didn’t handle the pressure well right there allowing them to go on a little run to get that five or six point lead we never recovered from that.”
It also turned out to be another nightmare game for Gutierrez. After struggling in Friday’s semifinal (1 for 8, eight points), things only got worse as she finished 2-for-15 shooting and just six points.
“You just have to try and not think about the negative things as they’re going on because that only makes it worse,” said Gutierrez a senior who is off to Tulane. “You just continue shooting and keep moving on and can’t always think about if the ball is not going in the basket and that’s what I kept trying to do. Unfortunately things didn’t turn out the way we wanted today but I’m still proud of my teammates and what we accomplished this season.”
Said Hively: “It stings right now but in a few days, we’ll reflect on one of the greatest seasons in the history of this program. And I guess if you throw Winter Haven out of the mix we had an undefeated season.”
NOVA: Gonzalez 17, Stone 9, August 8, Gutierrez 6, Delancy 3, Levy 2. WH: Franklin 20, Battles 17, Singleton 6, Small 6, Hardy 5, Sullivan 2. Three pointers: Gonzalez 2, August 2, Small. Rebounds: Singleton 11. Assists: Gutierrez 3. Steals: Singleton 5. Half: WH 24-16.