LAKELAND — For 31 games, the third quarter always belonged to Springstead.
If the Eagles led at halftime, they made that lead bigger.
If they trailed at halftime … well, find me a time they trailed and I'll get back to you on that one.
They went into the most important third quarter of their lives feeling pretty good Saturday afternoon.
They led 37-26. A Class 4A state basketball championship and a historic undefeated season was in their hands.
"We felt good, we felt comfortable coming out after halftime," forward Isaiah Mason said. "Maybe too comfortable."
They lost their grip.
They lost the game.
They lost everything.
"Man, we were 31-0," said senior guard Dante Valentine, agitated when it was suggested the Eagles had finally been tested, and wilted.
"Can we have one loss and still be …"
And then he shook his head and his voice faded.
Can we still consider the Eagles great?
To be fair to the Eagles, Cocoa played one of the most impressive halves of basketball a team possibly can. They would have run just about any other team in the state out of the Lakeland Center.
They turned up the speed of the game, and turned the Eagles inside-out in winning 75-60.
It was a stunning turnaround, considering Springstead had been nothing short of brilliant the entire postseason and went into halftime ahead by 11 points after another display of that brilliance.
"Probably the worst half of basketball in the biggest game of the season," Valentine said.
It's hard to fathom what the Eagles could have done to prevent it. That's how good Cocoa was, coming to life in the final moments before halftime.
"You could feel it coming," said Dominique Roberson, who led the Eagles with 19 points.
The Tigers went all-out in the second half, trying to intercept every pass, and the Eagles sloppily tossed the ball cross-court to accommodate such a strategy.
In transition, the Tigers blew past the vaunted Springstead defense. They drove to the hoop at will and controlled the boards. They started raining 3-pointers on an Eagles team that clearly looked worn down and slow.
In the second half, Springstead gave up 49 points; only 12 teams had been able to score that many points in an entire game against Springstead this season.
Coach Pat Kelly can cite the challenges Wiregrass Ranch or Mitchell or Nature Coast posed to his team this season, but let's be honest here — somebody popped the Eagles in their collective mouths for the first time this season Saturday afternoon.
Even the coach didn't have any answers, no plan to stop the bleeding.
With stars Mason and Valentine in serious foul trouble, he never sat them down once. He said he had no choice. So the Eagles ended up playing the last three-plus minutes without either one after they fouled out.
So it ended, this impressive, exhilarating and memorable clutch at history.
The Eagles weren't merely bidding for a state title, though that would have been amazing enough. They were bidding for perfection. They probably weren't appreciated enough for coming so close.
Consider it for a second. A season without a loss, without a letdown, without a single off night; teenage boys playing 31 times, winning 31 times, never faltering.
Not even once.
Who does that in any sport?
And even then, it was just one bad half, because the Eagles looked super in the first two quarters.
Then the worst half.
At the worst time.
So back to Valentine's question: Can they still be considered great?
I'd argue yes.
They were 31-1. They beat the No. 1 team in the state in the semifinals. They played in the state championship game.
Every game they won, they did so by at least six points, and 27 of those wins were by at least 12.
Even with silver medals hanging from their necks, the numbers are indisputable.
They were great.
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]