This time was going to be different.
A veteran South Miami team maintained that belief all season on its march back to The Lakeland Center and another opportunity to be the school’s first state basketball champion.
On Friday night, the emotional distress was evident and all-too familiar for the Cobras.
“This hurts man, it really hurts,” South Miami coach Robert Doctor said. “These guys worked for this all year long. I’m hurt right now.
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Poor free-throw shooting and a poor start to the second half cost the Cobras in a 73-59 defeat against Apopka Wekiva in a Class 9A state semifinal.
Wekiva (26-5) advanced to its first state final and made 27 of 29 free-throw attempts. South Miami (26-4) converted only 9-of-19 attempts.
For the fourth time in the past five seasons and sixth time overall, South Miami finished its season in Lakeland painfully short of a state championship.
For the third time in the past four years, the Cobras fell in the semifinal round.
And for a group of talented seniors, several of whom already experienced the agony of an overtime loss in last year’s tournament, there was no silver lining.
“I want to win a state title as bad as I can breathe,” said Doctor, who has led his alma mater to state in its past four trips. “Just getting here is tough. Last year we got here playing four overtime games. It’s tough. We have to find a way to do a better job when we come up here.”
Star senior guard Zack Dawson sat silent with tears in his eyes after the game as did several of his teammates. Dawson, who is headed to Oklahoma State, finished with 26 points in his last high school game. Keavon Tyler finished with 13 points, and Miguel Arnold had 11.
The trio helped South Miami (26-4) duel with Wekiva (26-5) to a 30-30 tie early in the third quarter. Then Wekiva turned up the full-court pressure and created several turnovers, sparking a 17-4 run.
Dawson brought South Miami back, cutting the deficit to five with 4:09 left. But the Cobras never slowed down senior Paul Reed, a 6-9 forward headed to DePaul, who finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds. South Miami senior center Latravian Glover, another Oklahoma State signee, was held scoreless and fouled out with 4:29 left in the fourth.
“I didn’t think [Reed] could handle the ball as well as he did, and he created a big matchup problem for us,” Doctor said.
Several other Cobras’ seniors including Arnold have scholarship offers, something Doctor took solace in after the loss.
“I want to win every game, but the most important thing is our kids have scholarships and will have the opportunity to go places and make something of their lives,” Doctor said. “As long as I can mold these guys into young men, I’ll handle this loss, and I’ll come back.”
WK (26-5): Reed 28, Johnson 12, Perry 10, Sheppard 8, Morris 11, Bostick Jr. 4. SM (26-4): Ferguson 8, Dawson 26, Arnold 11, Tyler 13, Cerphy 1. Half: Tied at 28. Fouled out: Glover, Ferguson. Three-pointers: Reed, Perry, Morris 2, Tyler 3, Dawson 2, Arnold. Rebounds: Reed 13. Assists: Reed, Johnson, Dawson.