LAKELAND – Unfinished business.
That’s how Lake Minneola boys basketball coach Freddie Cole looks at Saturday’s 60-44 loss to Miami Norland in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 6A state championship at The Lakeland Center.
“Our goal this year, since our first practice, was to win the state championship,” said Cole. “We didn’t get that done, but that didn’t make this an unsuccessful season. We learned so much about what it takes to win at this level, but we’re going to approach next season like we left something on the table this time around.”
Miami Norland put the game away late in the fourth quarter when its superior size — the Vikings had three players taller than 6-foot-6, while Lake Minneola had no starter taller than 6-foot-2 —became a factor. On four-straight possessions midway through the period, Miami Norland was able to get to the rim for putback dunks or tip-ins.
That enabled the Vikings to break open a tight game after trailing 36-35 heading into the fourth quarter.
Until that point, Lake Minneola was able to stay close with quickness, aggressive defense and ability to beat Miami Norland to open areas on the floor. The Hawks attacked the basket for most of the game and led by as many as seven points but couldn’t overcome a scoreless stretch in the fourth when the Vikings found their stride.
“That dry spell killed us,” Cole said. “You can’t come into a game like this, against a team like Miami Norland, and not score the basketball. A lot of that was Miami Norland playing on-the-ball basketball and you have to give them credit for that, but we also didn’t convert some makeable shots. Until the fourth quarter, I was pleased with the way we executed our game plan.
“We just couldn’t get the ball t o fall in the fourth quarter.”
Lake Minneola (28-4) got out to an early lead when Carlyle Holder scored on a layup on the game’s opening possession. The Hawks tried to attack the basket in the first quarter with mixed results but shot only 27 percent from the field and trailed 13-8.
Even more telling was the Vikings’ dominance on the backboards. Miami Norland out-rebounded Lake Minneola 8-3 in the opening period and finished with a 41-24 advantage.
“We had to control the tempo against them and we did that by rebounding the basketball,” said Miami Norland coach Lawton Williams. “Our size had to be a factor on the boards. If we let them rebound the ball, they were going to run and that would create big problems for us.”
Lake Minneola junior Avery Brown helped the Hawks get back into the game in the second quarter. Brown got to the rim with a variety of drives, challenging the Vikings’ size and closing out the first half with 14 points.
In addition, the Hawks stepped up their backcourt pressure. When Brown ignited the Lake Minneola faithful with a thunderous dunk at the 2-minute mark, the Hawks took a 23-18 lead and seemed in control of the game.
Less than a minute after Brown’s dunk, Lake Minneola suffered a devastating blow when Holder injured his right ankle. The injury kept Holder on the bench at the start of the second half and even though he played most of the second half, his effectiveness was severely limited.
“We lost a lot when Carlyle got hurt,” Cole said. “We lost a scorer and we lost a lot of quickness on defense. It forced us to make adjustments and get away from our game plan some.”
In the third quarter, Lake Minneola came out and looked to run away from the Vikings. At the 5:09 mark, the Hawks had built their largest lead, 33-26, but a defensive switch by Miami Norland changed the complexion of the game.
Williams began to look for someone to neutralize Brown and found his stopper in senior Zachary Johnson. The 6-foot-2 Johnson, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, shut down the Hawks’ leading scorer, holding him scoreless for the final 13 minutes.
“I asked if anyone could stop (Brown),” Williams said. “We weren’t going to change anything we were doing, as far as our game plan, but we needed someone to step up and stop him. Zach went out and got the job done and still managed to carry his load of the offense.
“That was part of our senior leadership. When we’ve asked someone to raise their game, our seniors have always stepped up.”
For the game, Lake Minneola shot 31 percent from the field and was 2-of-19 from behind the 3-point line. Brown, who was the Hawks’ tournament MVP, scored a team high 16 points, but was the only Hawk in double figures. He and Andrew Mendoza led the team in rebounds with five apiece.
Miami Norland (27-5) shot 49 percent from the field, including a blistering 58 percent in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, Lake Minneola managed to hit only 4-of-17 shots (24 percent).
The victory was Miami Norland’s third-straight Class 6A championship. It also marked Williams’ fifth championship in nine years at Miami Norland.
Cole said he and his players, while disappointed in the loss, are proud of their accomplishments and how far they have taken the Lake Minneola program in only three years of existence.
“Some players and coaches never get to play for a state championship,” Cole said. “We’re going to work even harder next year to get back to Lakeland and win it all. We have to get back here and finish the job we started.”