TAMPA — What looked to be a blowout turned into a frantic finish as the Storm held on to earn a berth in the ArenaBowl, defeating Orlando 63-62 in front of 10,104 Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The American Conference champion Storm, seeking its sixth AFL title, travels to Spokane, Wash., to face the hometown Shock on Friday.
"We don't hang conference championship banners or division (banners)," Storm coach Tim Marcum said. "We're about winning the next game."
With the Predators trailing by one and the Storm at Orlando's 2-yard line, Kenny McEntyre intercepted Brett Dietz's pass in the end zone with 7.1 seconds left to keep Orlando's hopes alive. A few plays later, kicker Carlos Martinez, who earlier had missed a moved-back extra-point attempt that would have tied it at 63, left a 49-yard field-goal attempt short as time expired.
"Hail Mary, full of grace," Marcum said when asked what was going through his mind during that field-goal attempt. "I thought it was dead-on."
It was the second time this season the Storm (13-5) defeated the Predators. Tampa Bay won 62-50 on May 28 and lost 75-60 to close the regular season. "We got thumped the last time … and that stung," Dietz said.
The Storm's Terrence Royal scored on a 1-yard run with 8:54 left in the game, but Garrett Rivas shanked the extra-point attempt, so the Storm's advantage was 55-42.
Bobby Sippio's 4-yard touchdown catch cut Orlando's deficit to 55-49, and Dion Byrum made a diving interception on Tampa Bay's next possession and returned it to the Storm 7.
Then on fourth and goal, Orlando quarterback Nick Hill misfired on a pass in the end zone intended for Sippio, but the ball bounced off the lower right goal-post bar and into T.T. Toliver's arms for a 56-55 Orlando lead with a minute to play.
"That was a desperation throw," Marcum said. "That could have been a big play."
On the Storm's ensuing possession, Dietz (24-for-46 for 260 yards and seven touchdowns) hit Tyrone Timmons from 7 yards for a touchdown, then Royal for the two-point conversion to make it 63-56.
Orlando answered when Toliver caught his seventh TD pass of the night. But a pair of offside penalties pushed the extra-point attempt back 10 yards, and Martinez missed wide right.
Dietz drove the Storm to the 2 looking to ice the game, but on fourth down, his soft lob to Hank Edwards was intercepted by McEntyre, setting up the frantic ending and Martinez's kick.
"It was all so back and forth toward the end," Dietz said. "I had my head in my hands (on Martinez's final attempt)."