LAKELAND — They had spent more than three months climbing to unprecedented altitudes. Saturday, they pressed on gloriously — fullcourt-style — until only a few figurative steps separated them from the state title and an unbeaten season that represented their summit.
That's when the Springstead Eagles felt a rare tremor beneath them, unlike any they had experienced in their previous 31 games. Cocoa, their taller, deeper foe, had seized momentum in the boys basketball Class 4A state final. Suddenly, the air seemed thinner, the ground shakier.
"I knew it was coming," Eagles senior Dominique Roberson said.
"It" was a furious Tigers rally.
And when it arrived, the bottom completely fell out of the Eagles' dream season.
Victimized by the kind of defensive pressure they had employed so skillfully and relentlessly all year, the Eagles (31-1) squandered a 13-point second-half lead in a 75-60 defeat before a Lakeland Center crowd of roughly 1,800.
The unraveling came in the third quarter, when Springstead's quest to become the first boys or girls team from the Pasco-Hernando area in 45 years to win a state title — and the first bay area team of the modern era to finish a season undefeated — wilted amid Cocoa's pressure.
Trailing 37-26 at halftime, Cocoa (30-3) outscored the Eagles 20-4 in the third quarter. Springstead had more than twice as many turnovers (nine) as points in that quarter and was outrebounded 14-5 during that span.
"They did to us what we do to people," Eagles second-year coach Pat Kelly said.
That includes harassing the opposing guards, forcing turnovers and scoring baskets in transition. For the first 16 minutes Saturday afternoon, the Eagles did that nearly at will.
They scored the game's first 10 points, all off Cocoa turnovers, and led by as many as 17 in the second quarter. When Roberson (team-high 19 points) put back a missed Dante Valentine free throw and Isaiah Mason followed with a free throw of his own, the Eagles had a 36-19 lead.
Mason had 13 first-quarter points. Roberson had nine, two coming after he picked Cocoa point guard Reggie Clark (six first-half turnovers) clean and drove in for a layup.
"We maximized what we did in the first half," Kelly said. "Played outstanding."
But that's when Cocoa coach James Rowe talked the timidness right out of his kids.
"Before halftime, before we left the bench, I told the kids that tonight they're going to see the greatest comeback in state history," he said. "And then at halftime all I wrote on the board is you can't let fear win, that you've got to play with heart. And the kids responded."
Cocoa, which finished the first half on a 7-2 run, emerged from the locker room in a noticeably higher gear. Applying fullcourt pressure and rotating fresh bodies off the bench, Cocoa scored the final 16 points of the third quarter.
Senior guard Julius Reid had nine of the 16. From there, 6-foot-5 senior Ellis Young, whose sprawling wingspan often made him seem 6-8, came alive, scoring 10 of his 20 points in the final quarter. He finished with 13 rebounds.
Meantime, Mason and Valentine — Springstead's top two scorers entering the game — teamed for two points after halftime. Mason fouled out with 3:37 to play, 20 seconds before Valentine.
"We don't have the depth right now that Cocoa has," Kelly said. "Their depth and rotation of players, keeping people fresh, that hurt us. And then the other thing was tactical. I should've kept the court spread out more, and I didn't. That's on me."
Here's something else Kelly can tag on himself: He just oversaw the greatest basketball season in Hernando County history.
"For the players, it's unbelievable what they accomplished," he said. "For me, I'm just an old guy. I feel about like Forrest Gump — I'm tired, I think I'll go home now."
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3350.