Northeast’s girls’ basketball team played the first state final in the program’s history with Tiffany Charles serving as a coach for just the second game in her life.
The result was a 60-45 Fort Myers win in a Class 6A championship game on Saturday afternoon at The Lakeland Center.
“This is a big stage,” Charles said, “and for this to only be my second time, I was definitely nervous.”
Charles, a former college basketball player at Winthrop, knows the game. But without coach Zach Gillion at the game because of religious reasons, the Hurricanes (22-8) collapsed after entering the fourth quarter tied 42-42.
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Fort Myers (25-5) went on a 12-0 run to start the fourth quarter.
Northeast, which was shooting a respectable 42 percent through three quarters, shot 1 for 18 in the fourth and also had six turnovers.
“I think there would have been a different energy, more intensity,” said Northeast senior Nailah Delinois when asked if Gillion could have made a difference. “Coach Tiffany did the best she could. I’m upset we didn’t win that game for Coach Zach.”
Gillion, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church that observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, would have coached had the game been played Saturday night.
Northeast had wanted to get the game time moved, and the girls had threatened not to play without Gillion. But once the schedule was posted, there was no going back.
Before the game started, there was considerable drama. Fort Myers took the court for warmups at about 1:05 p.m., and Northeast was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, at 1:14 p.m., the Hurricanes walked on the court — without Gillion.
Charles said she had talked to Gillion on Friday.
“He told me, ‘I’m not even thinking about coaching. There is no talking to me. There is no trying to convince me. There is nothing you can do to tell me to tell me I have to coach on my Sabbath,’ ” Charles said. “That was amazing to me. He is such a positive influence.”
As for their threat to boycott the final game without Gillion, Northeast athletic director Dawn Conrad said the girls spoke in the heat of the moment on Friday.
Conrad also said that playing in Saturday’s final was the decision of the girls and that they did not need to be convinced or forced.
“It’s tough, but the girls are focused,” Conrad said before the game. “The girls are going to win it for Coach Zach — that’s their mentality.”
That looked like it might happen when Northeast took a 12-5 lead early in the second quarter. Fort Myers missed a multitude of layups and made just one of its first 23 shots.
But Fort Myers, led by 5-6 point guard Destinni Henderson, found its way later in the second quarter and led 25-24 at halftime.
Henderson, rated by espn.com as the No. 16 sophomore in the nation, finished with 15 points, a game-high six assists and three steals. Half of her assists were in the decisive fourth quarter.
“She showed it,” Charles said of Henderson. “She handled all the double-teams we threw at her. She was skilled and precise in picking our defense apart. She led her team to a state title as a sophomore — that’s an amazing accomplishment.”
NE: Taylor 4, Austin 13, Lee 14, Hudson 8, Saintigene 4, Delinois 2. FM: Henderson 15, Brunson 13, Outtten 6, Hayes 1, Giles 10, Johnson 15. Half: FM 25-24. Three-pointers: Taylor 1, Austin 1, Brunson 1, Henderson 1.
State girls’ basketball finals
Class 8A: Vero Beach vs. Boca Raton, inc.
Class 7A: Winter Haven 44, Bradenton Lakewood Ranch 28
Class 6A: Fort Myers 60, Northeast 45
Class 5A: Jacksonville Ribault 60, Orlando Bishop Moore 37
Class 4A: Orlando Lake Highland Prep 72, Tampa Brooks-DeBartolo 30
Class 3A: Miami Country Day 76, Jacksonville University Christian 46
Class 2A: Tallahassee FAMU 55, Academy at the Lakes 40
Class 1A: Madison County 73, Trenton 58