LAKELAND — As the Clearwater players walked dejectedly to the podium to field questions, they were still gripped by the ghastly memory of Gainesville sharpshooters striking from long range.
The Purple Hurricanes fired at will from the perimeter with either T.J. Hall swishing a 3-pointer or Greg Gantt stepping behind the arc to nail one.
Unable to stop the outside shot, the Tornadoes watched an early lead evaporate in a 53-46 loss in the Class 5A state championship game that left them dripping in their own disbelief.
"They were just burying 3s from everywhere," Clearwater coach Allen Carden said.
The Purple Hurricanes, the defending state finalist, came into Friday's game as the heavyweight, and it was Hall and Gantt who kept hitting the Tornadoes with long-range punches.
Hall was 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and Gantt was 3-of-5. The Purple Hurricanes were so good from the outside that 10 of their 13 field goals came off 3-pointers.
"I don't know if we've had a game like that before," Gainesville coach Kelly Beckham said.
"Thank goodness we were hot."
Early on, Clearwater was in control, holding a 7-4 lead in the first quarter.
Then came the onslaught.
Gantt started it off by hitting consecutive 3-pointers to tie the score at 10. Then Hall went to work, hitting five 3-pointers in the first half.
"I was just feeling it," Hall said.
"I guess I had an adrenaline rush being out there."
The Purple Hurricanes' outside shooting helped them go on a 24-6 run to take a commanding 28-13 lead in the second quarter.
The Tornadoes (28-4) managed to slow the game down and scored the last four points of the first half to cut the deficit to 28-17.
"I think our ability to slow down their run and score at the end of the first half kept us in the game," Carden said.
In the third quarter, Gainesville continued its torrid pace, hitting two more 3-pointers to maintain a double-digit lead.
Down 40-27 in the fourth quarter, Clearwater never quit by making a run of its own, scoring nine straight points.
It was the first time a team came within single digits of the Purple Hurricanes in the postseason.
But it was not enough.
The Tornadoes missed some opportunities inside. And when Gainesville had the ball, Clearwater was forced to foul. Once the Purple Hurricanes were on the line, they did not miss.
Gainesville (29-3) was 11-of-12 on free throws down the stretch. Gantt was 7-of-8.
"I just felt in my head that we were going to come back and win," said the Tornadoes' Okaro White, who scored a team-high 21 and grabbed eight rebounds. "But we let it slip away. Gainesville made its shots on free throws and 3-pointers."
The loss was hard for the Tornadoes to take. As the clock expired, Clearwater's Malcolm Grigley was left to use his jersey as Kleenex, mopping his eyes as his teammates stood with their heads down, dolefully examining their shoelaces.
And Regan O'Rourke sat silently in the locker room, lowering his forehead until it touched the podium.
"It stinks to have our season end this way," he said. "We wanted to win that state title."