GULFPORT — For the past four seasons, Boca Ciega has beaten Clearwater in every imaginable way: tight games, routs, heartbreaking comebacks.
The outcome was supposed to be the same Tuesday night. After all, the Tornadoes, who graduated the bulk of last season's lineup, were regarded as charming foils in the Pirates' march toward their fourth straight state final four appearance.
But Clearwater showed its resolve, rallying from a four-point deficit to score the final seven points in the last 1:40 in regulation to pull off a stunning 46-43 victory in the Class 5A region semifinals.
"This was a big step for this group of girls," Tornadoes coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. "It's been a long time since we've beaten Boca Ciega in a meaningful game. We graduated so much and no one thought we would even be at this stage."
The last meaningful victory came in 2007 when Clearwater hit a 70-foot shot as time expired to beat the Pirates in a region semifinal that propelled the Tornadoes to their last state final four appearance.
Since then, Boca Ciega has dominated the series.
In the second half of Tuesday night's game, it looked as if that trend would continue. After trailing by as many as 12 points midway through the third quarter, the Pirates used their quickness to make a furious comeback.
With two minutes remaining, Boca Ciega was ahead 43-39 and in control, especially after the Tornadoes missed two free throws.
Then the momentum shifted. The Pirates missed a shot. Clearwater got the rebound and Emma Loucks hit a 3-pointer with 1:40 left to make it a one-point game.
"That shot was definitely big, and helped us stay focused and get back in the game," Loucks said.
With 46 seconds left, the Tornadoes' Alex Alford was fouled and hit both free throws to give Clearwater a 44-43 lead. Alford sealed the game by hitting two more free throws in the final 10 seconds. The Pirates' Tamara Taylor missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game as time expired.
"It's tough to end this way," Boca Ciega coach Will White said. "But we showed a lot of character to come back like that."