GULFPORT — At the end, the sheen of dominance Boca Ciega had acquired during last year's spectacular regular season was replaced by shocked stares.
The Pirates, playing in their first state semifinal girls basketball game since 1999, were whipped in a 73-40 loss to a Winter Haven team that prevailed on quickness, tradition and experience.
"I think some people thought we were not disappointed after that loss," Boca Ciega coach Will White said. "I think we were more in a state of disbelief that we played that bad."
But somewhere off in their own special corner, the Pirates found a way to internalize that defeat and keep fresh their championship glory.
Now they are back.
On Wednesday, Boca Ciega returns to the Lakeland Center, facing Davie Nova in a Class 5A state semifinal at 8:30 p.m.
"We were all devastated by last year's loss," junior guard Latavia Dempsey said. "But we couldn't wait for this season to start because we knew we had a chance to get here again."
Maintaining that they might be more talented this season and equally driven to win a title, Boca Ciega players started working not long after last season ended.
There were a few bumps early on, adjusting to injuries and the loss of Tamara Taylor to academic ineligibility. The result was three losses in December.
Since then — and with Taylor's return in mid January — the Pirates (28-3) have been on a tear and enter as the hottest team in the tournament with 19 straight wins.
They also can take solace in knowing that out of last year's 5A final four participants, they are the only ones still alive.
Having played in the vastness of the Lakeland Center should pay dividends this time around.
Unfamiliarity with the arena, with its faraway background of fans and the height of the ceiling, made shooting an adventure last season.
Boca Ciega, a team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer, was 4-of-30 on field goals, including 2-of-11 from 3-point range in the first half of last year's state semifinal against Winter Haven.
"I didn't want to talk about the size of the arena last year because I didn't want the players to think about it," White said. "But it definitely posed a problem, especially with depth perception on shots."
To ensure the Pirates are well-versed in playing in big arenas, White scheduled Monday's practice at USF.
"That helped a lot just to see another gym with a faraway back wall and make that adjustment before we get there," Dempsey said. "We don't want to take anything for granted."
This time, Boca Ciega does not have a just-happy-to-be-here mentality.
"We will not be satisfied unless we take another step," senior guard Tory Stephens said. "We want to win it all."
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.