BRADENTON ― Without a doubt, Braden River guard O’Mariah Gordon was the best player on the floor for Friday’s Class 8A region final against Tampa Bay Tech.
Battling double and triple teams, fearlessly driving into opponents almost a foot taller to drain rainbow fallaway jumpers, hitting dagger-like 3-pointers, throwing herself at 50-50 balls with reckless abandon, Gordon earned every one of the 42 points she scored.
But, without a doubt, the visiting Titans were the better team. That made all of the difference in Tech's 77-66 victory and return trip to Lakeland and the state final four.
Especially, and impressively, in the second half, Tampa Bay Tech pulled its game together on both ends of the court.
Trailing 39-37 after the break on a banked Gordon 3 at the buzzer, head coach Reggie Lawrence dialed in the adjustments that clicked:
• Despite holding her own against Gordon — a career 1,346-point scorer as a sophomore — sophomore K’Nisha Godfrey got defensive help from classmate Jasmine Peaks and even 6-foot-3 freshman Janiah Barker.
“I know that I just had to come out there and defend the best I can,” said Godfrey. “If I've got to stick her, that's what I've got to do. Anything for my team.”
“K'Nisha's our best on-the-ball defender,” Lawrence said. “She's played against some great ones from USA ball to summer ball. We had to get her some help. We're one family, we're going to help out.”
• The team-over-me attitude extended to the offensive end as well as Tech aggressively drove to the hoop then looked for cutters when the defense for the Pirates (24-2) committed to the ball.
“We talked about it leading up to this game,” Lawrence said. “Any time we get dribble penetration, someone’s going to come up and help and the back side is open. It just took us a while to figure it out.”
Once they did, the paint opened up for Godfrey (team-high 18 points with six assists and five rebounds) and Peaks (14 points and five dimes) to go to work. Barker (10 points and 12 boards) and Jayla Murray (17 points and 10 rebounds) were two of the key beneficiaries.
But the biggest contribution came from energized freshman Amiya Evans, a 6-foot-2 wrecking ball who changed the game under the glass in the final 16 minutes.
A pair of blocked shots and a lay-in off a superb Peaks wraparound pass, helping Tech (27-3) take a three-point edge to the fourth quarter, was just the appetizer for Evans. Hitting a pair of putbacks, taking feeds from Peaks and Murray for two more lay-ups, and pulling down eight of her 17 rebounds in between, Evans drove the Titans' lead to nine (71-62) with 2:46 left. It stayed at least a two-possession game the rest of the way.
“I knew this was our quarter; we’ve been planning on winning this since August,” said Evans, who finished with 15 points and four blocks. “I had to get up, get strong, get all the rebounds. We were going to win this quarter and this game.”
“The crazy part about it is she lost her contact lens in the first quarter so she was playing without either one,” Lawrence said. “I asked her if she could go and she said, 'I'll just stay around the rim.' She must be nearsighted because she was making lay-ups. She gave us a big lift in the second half.”
Lawrence didn't know if his talented squad would make it to states again (“They're young. You just never know how they're going to show up.”), but he did know how they would respond to top-notch competition.
“This is what they live for. They were mad all season until we played Miami Country Day, we played Winter Haven, teams to get us prepped for this situation. And they played their best basketball of the year on the road. They're used to the road, the hostile crowds, and they stuck to the game plan.”
And now Tampa Bay Tech prepares for a Friday afternoon date with Bartram Trail in Lakeland with a first-ever state title berth on the line.
“This team has a lot of heart,” Godfrey said. “We all have one goal; we all want the same thing. We all want this and playing with heart will make it happen.”