One wondered whether it was the usual “coach speak” when Miami Country Day girls’ basketball head coach Ochiel Swaby warned anybody listening at a press conference the day before his 4A state championship game with Tampa Carrollwood Day that “this will be a tough, challenging game for us,” or if he really meant it.
Turns out Swaby was right on the money.
A Country Day team that for the past four years has practically owned Lakeland, winning its previous nine state games by an average of 32 points, did no such thing Thursday afternoon.
With a state-tying record fifth consecutive state championship on the line, the Spartans got pushed to the absolute limit before rallying for a 57-45 win against Carrollwood Day at the RP Funding Center.
And with the win, they matched Jacksonville Ribault’s five titles in a row from 1999 to 2003.
Country Day (20-10) not only trailed at halftime, but when Jaden Harris dropped a three-pointer at the 5:05 mark of the third, they found themselves in a 38-31 hole.
“It had been frustrating for the girls up to that point, but there was no panic because what happened today was why we went out and put together such a tough regular-season schedule,” Swaby said. “We took our lumps early on and actually think we lost three in a row at one point, but ultimately going through something like that prepares you for what they had to dealt with today when things did not go well early on.”
Country Day struggled in the first half and was just 10 of 36 shooting from the floor at halftime.
But, with junior Koi Love leading the way, the Spartans didn’t panic and battled their way back, going on a 13-2 run after the 38-31 deficit to take a four-point lead before a Carrollwood three-pointer made it 44-43 going to the fourth.
Love continued to drive the lane and force the action in the fourth and not only finished with a game-high 25 points, eight of those coming in the fourth, but the leading rebounder, as well, with 13.
“We definitely scouted this team and had a game plan, so obviously when we were down seven, we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing,” said Love, who has multiple college offers but is uncommitted. “It was just a matter of talking to the rest of the team during timeouts and keep pushing. We just kept stressing defense, to just keep playing defense and the offense eventually would come and it did.”
One member of the team who has gotten awfully used to collecting championship hardware is junior guard Maria Alvarez. Making the team as a seventh-grader, she is the lone Spartan to be a part of all five championship teams.
“I feel so fortunate because nobody wins championships by themselves,” said Alvarez, the team’s thee-point sharpshooter who had a quiet day with just six points (0-for-4 from beyond the arc) as the Patriots (28-4) concentrated on keeping her from getting good looks. “You have to play for a great coach, and we have one in Coach O (Swaby), and also be around a lot of special players, as well. This year was especially tough because we really had to work hard to bring the chemistry together early on, so to be here today is really something.”
Said Swaby: “The first one is always special and will remain so, but I think we’re going to relish this one more than any other because of everything we had to battle through this year and the way we battled back today and got tested. When you have to fight like we did today, it makes it awfully special.”
MCD: Love 25, Berry 10, Shaw 9, Alvarez 6, McCormack 3, J. Theodule 2, Taylor 2. CD: McGill 10, Harris 10, Gary 9, McMillan 7, Mays 7, Dizon 2. Three pointers: Harris 2, Love, Shaw, McCormack, Gary. Rebounds: Love 13. Assists: J. Theodule 5. Steals: Alvarez 6. Half: CD 31-27.