LAKELAND — A week of practice at USF prepared Land O'Lakes for Lakeland's arena, but it couldn't brace the Gators for Bradenton Southeast's defensive play.
"Every last game is going to sting, unless you're that champion," coach Phyllis Crain said.
The Gators' (23-5) longest postseason run ended in the Class 5A state semifinals, 49-24 to Southeast. Land O'Lakes' last playoff appearance came in 2011, and the Gators had never advanced past the region final until this season.
"Nobody thought we would come here," said senior Taylor McDonald, adding that most assumed the Gators would fall in the second round. "We have a lot of fight."
Low scoring early spelled doom for bay-area schools throughout the state final four, and Land O'Lakes was no exception. The Gators tried to pull themselves up in the second and third quarters, but were outshot 14-2 in the first and couldn't come back.
"They anticipated the pass. They were quick to the ball," Gators guard Nikki Kraning said. "We also didn't play the game we came to play, either."
Crain said the team's intention was to keep the game slow in the first quarter. The Gators planned to force the Seminoles to take outside shots, but neither team put up many shots from beyond the arc. Southeast finished 0-for-7 on 3-point attempts.
Southeast scored 27 points off turnovers, ending the match with 29 rebounds and 24 steals. Land O'Lakes had more rebounds (32 total, 24 defensive), but just five steals.
When asked if any team Land O'Lakes faced this season had a comparable defense, Kraning laughed: "I don't think so."
McDonald had a team-best 12 points for the Gators, while junior Jhade Hayes was key on defense, with 12 rebounds.
"It's a great season," Crain said. "I'm very proud of these guys."
This is Southeast's fifth final four appearance. The Seminoles (30-1) won their last state championship in 1990, before any of their current players were born. Their last final four was in 2004.
Southeast coach John Harder brought four of his seniors to Lakeland Center when they were freshmen. He wanted them to see what they were aiming for.
After the win, those four girls sat on either side of him.
"It's worthwhile for these kids," Harder said.
The Seminoles' Keshawna Robinson led the day in scoring with 20 points. Janelle Gould added 13, and DeAngela Mathis had 10. Half of Robinson's points were from the free-throw line.
"Defense wins championships," Harder said. "Free throws win the game."
The Seminoles knew going in that McDonald, the Gators' tallest player at 6-foot-2, would present a challenge. Harder said his defense handled her well, though she still stood out as Land O'Lakes' top scorer.
Robinson said she could feel the Gators' frustration as the scoring gap widened.
"I know how it feels to be down that much," she said.
Mathis, too, sensed the Gators' stress, but would expect any team to feel that pressure.
"One thing about that team, they did not give up," Mathis said. "They did not quit playing."