LAKELAND — Throughout the Fort Myers girls basketball team’s odyssey to its second straight appearance in the state Final Four, which included three head coaches and heartbreak last season, the Green Wave have always managed to come back stronger immediately after they are knocked down.
It was no different Saturday on the state’s biggest stage.
After starting off with the type of shooting slump that crushes state championship dreams, Fort Myers (27-5) weathered the storm with strong defense. It held Oakland Park Northeast (20-8) to just three points in the fourth quarter of a 60-45 victory in the Class 6A title game at the Lakeland Center, securing the program’s first state crown.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” first-year coach Chad Terrell said. “It’s amazing to be here, it’s been amazing to be with these girls. It’s been a blessing to be a part of this.”
Terrell was hired following a season where former coach Ron Riis resigned before the 2015 postseason and gave way to Jimmy Roberts, who led the Greenies to the state semifinals where they left Lakeland disappointed following a loss to Palm Beach Lakes.
With four of five starters returning from that team, sophomore Destanni Henderson, who finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and her teammates vowed to never feel that way again.
“It’s been a long season and a long journey,” Henderson said. “But we stuck with it and we believed in each other.”
A little more than 12 hours after shutting down Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee in the second half of a semifinal, the televised state final didn’t start the way the Green Wave would have liked. They started the first quarter shooting 1 for 23 (4.3 percent), but played well enough defensively the rest of the half forcing 11 turnovers to go to the locker room with a 25-24 lead.
“We needed to slow it down and get better shots,” said junior Autumn Giles, who had 10 points, six rebounds and two steals. “We ran a different play to get more layups instead of jump shots because they weren’t falling.”
Terrell also opted to use 6-2 sophomore Alexsis Johnson more than she had been used during a game on the varsity level this season. In giving Northeast a different look with some size, Johnson made the most of her opportunity with 15 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes.
“I really didn’t think I was going to get that much playing time,” Johnson said. “I prepared by praying and believing in my teammates.”
Green Wave junior Bethany Brunson scored 13 points and her 13 rebounds were a big part of the team’s 52-41 rebounding advantage.
The teams were tied at 42 at the end of the third and it appeared the Lakeland crowd was in for another exciting state final finish. A quick 9-0 Fort Myers run ensured there would be no drama.
Henderson dropped a floater to start the run and then found Giles in transition following a turnover. The Green Wave forced 20 turnovers on the day.
“It’s been our motto the last few weeks. In the fourth quarter, we just ramp it up,” Terrell said. “These girls just find something. They dig down deep, they give tremendous effort. They lock in a focus in the fourth more than any other quarter.”
Fort Myers’ smothering defense forced the Hurricanes into a 1-for-18 shooting effort in the fourth quarter.
“It seemed like we couldn’t pull through,” Northeast junior Cabria Lee, who had a team-high 14 points, said. “Nothing was falling.”
The Hurricanes played the game without head coach Zach Gillion, who is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
The Miami Herald reported six Northeast rotation players threatened not to play unless the 1:35 p.m. tipoff was changed and acting head coach Tiffany Charles confirmed that was an option the team considered. An FHSAA spokesperson said Northeast requested a special time for Friday’s semifinal — a 43-37 win over Orlando Edgewater that started at 4 p.m. Friday — but not for Saturday.
With sundown coming around 6:21 p.m. Saturday, Gillion could’ve coached in the 7 p.m. slot, which was held by the 8A championship game. No changes were made because Vero Beach and Boca Raton Community declined to switch time slots, Fort Myers Principal David LaRosa said.
“It definitely was a difference because coach Gillion, if you know him, he’s a very positive, very huge influence,” Charles said. “It was definitely a huge hole to fill. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, but we tried to the best of our ability to fill that. If he would have coached, who knows what would have been the outcome.”
Fort Myers graduates just one senior and will look to continue its journey with another state title next season.