CLEARWATER — Without a doubt, Clearwater had the will to win. Unfortunately, Fort Myers had the skill, plenty of it.
With talent filling every Green Wave role, nothing short of perfection would have kept the host Tornadoes competitive in Friday's Class 7A region final. Fort Myers simply wouldn't let that happen, cruising to a 71-37 triumph.
"When (Fort Myers goes) eight or nine deep and you only go five or six deep at this point, it's tough to stay with them," said Clearwater coach Allen Williams. "And understand, their starting five is really, really good."
The Tornadoes (21-3) caught a break when Green Wave freshman center Chaniya Clark (six points, five rebounds) was erroneously benched by a scoring mistake with five fouls early in the third quarter, but all that did was allow senior guard Destanni Henderson to successfully tackle another role.
After playing the facilitator's part to a T with six first-half assists, she became a scoring machine in the second. Splitting double- and triple-teams with ease, Henderson dropped 12 of her game-high 22 points to go with eight rebounds and three steals before getting the rest of the night off early in the fourth quarter.
"The last few games, she scored six points, five points, and people are saying, 'What's going on?' " said coach Chadrick Terrell. "But she was just controlling the tempo and getting everybody involved. (Friday,) she got that look in her eye, that look that she was going to take over the game and she did."
"She's one of the best players I've seen in the state so far," Williams said. "That's why she's going to South Carolina (next fall)."
Complementary pieces were numerous. Freshman Janay Outten (seven steals) was brilliant at ball-hawking, Samara Spencer (another freshman that scored 15 points with six boards) and junior Tatum Hayes (11 points and three steals) slashed fearlessly to the basket, and senior Bethany Brunson (eight points and seven rebounds) cleaned the defensive glass and hit midrange jumpers.
"This was the best defense we played all year," said Terrell after his team held Clearwater to 22 percent shooting. "That started with the veterans bringing the level of the younger girls up."
Behind senior Carrie Lee (nine points, eight rebounds) and junior Olivia Jones (nine points, six boards, three blocked shots), the Tornadoes gave their all but fell into a 16-point hole 4 1/2 minutes into the game and couldn't recover.
"Now we just have to get in the gym and start working on everything, skills, shooting," Williams said in anticipation of his second season at the helm. "Will give them about a month off then start working toward next year."
And next Friday, Fort Myers (a deceptive 12-15 after forfeiting 11 wins) will face Dillard in Lakeland, looking for its third straight state title.