TAMPA — The fire sparked March 9, 2018, the moment they walked out of the Lakeland Center, angry after getting whipped on state basketball’s biggest stage in a Class 7A state semifinal.
The final score of that game — Choctawhatchee 88, Hillsborough 52 — made the Terriers downright sick, a feeling they never want to endure again.
“It was the big bright lights and none of our players had ever experienced that before,” Hillsborough High coach Chris Ward said. “I think a lot of the players were just happy to be there because we hadn’t been there in so long (more than 20 years).”
This year the end goal is completely, totally, drastically different.
“We want to go back there and win it all,” Ward said. “Of course we know that first we have to get there, but if we do, this time we will know what to expect. We will be better prepared. We will play better.”
Part of the good news is that 10 players who made the trip to last year’s final four are back for this year’s run, which so far has been pretty darned good.
Hillsborough entered the week 21-2 and coming off a barn burner of a win, 56-54 over Tampa Bay Tech last Friday night. The Terriers technically haven’t lost since the third game of the season. (They had to forfeit a Dec. 20 game before winter break because the school district wouldn’t let them leave early because of exams.)
Along the way the Terriers have done it with nine players who average 4.7 or more points a game with three players — seniors Christian Deleon and Joshua Gloster and junior Tyriq James — who lead the pack at 12.8, 11.9 and 10 points a game, respectively.
“I like to say that we do not have a superstar but together we make a great team,” Ward said. “On any given night we have about 10 guys who could step up and score 20 points. Whatever the opponent gives us dictates how the scoring will go.”
Same goes for the Terrier defense, which switches from man-to-man to zone at a moment’s notice. Always, however, Hillsborough gives opposing offenses fits because the Terriers are fast, athletic and tall (seven players are listed at 6-foot-4 or taller).
But perhaps more than anything they are motivated by that sting suffered in last year’s state semifinal.
The sentiment is printed on their backs and chests in big, bold red letters when they run on to the floor for warmups: Unfinished business.
“The kids came up with that saying, ‘Unfinished business,’” Ward said. “I heard that and I said, ‘Yeah, I like that. Let’s go with that.’ … Now we just have to finish our business. I think we can do that. I really do.”