Braden River girls basketball team comes up one win short of state semifinals.
Not a single Braden River High girls basketball player left their postgame locker room talk with dry eyes.
The Pirates had suffered an agonizing, season-ending loss against Tampa Bay Tech in the Class 8A regional finals, with a trip to the state semifinals on the line. They received a herculean effort from sophomore guard O’Mariah Gordon — 42 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block — in front of a raucous crowd, but could not make up for the Titans’ advantage in size and depth, and fell 77-66.
Pirates coach Stephanie Smith was intense throughout the night, throwing her towel when he realized the game was out of reach, and she, too, choked up following the conclusion of her first season at Braden River.
“These girls, I love them like my own," Smith said. "It is heartbreaking to see the seniors go. It is heartbreaking to work so hard with this group and fall short, because they showed this school how to love basketball. And they did it playing Chicago-style basketball (extremely physical, aggressive play on defense), a way that no one (at the school) has ever seen. As a coach, I could not be more proud of them for believing in me as much as I believe in them.
“I literally packed up and drove down here 18 hours (from Illinois) for O’Mariah Gordon. They needed someone who would understand her talent. It has been a blessing, because it turns out they had nine other amazing players, too. I am proud of our seniors. I am going to miss them. I would not trade this team for any team in the world, even though we lost. I don’t care.”
The Pirates finished with a 20-2 record, the best in school history. Smith isn’t satisfied with that. She said she is focused on development, especially with players other than Gordon and junior Julia Rodriguez. They will lose three seniors, but just one starter, forward Mela Sharma. Another summer of high-level AAU ball will help Gordon and Rodriguez develop even further — they both play for the Florida Future — and freshman forward Isabella Patterson should be ready to contribute more heavily in 2019-2020.
Tampa Bay Tech has four players six feet or taller in junior forward Kristen Sylvester (6-foot-0), sophomore forward Jayla Murray (6-foot-1), freshman forward Amiya Evans (6-foot-2) and freshman forward Janiah Baker (6-foot-3).
The Pirates' tallest player, Sharma, is 5-11. Gordon is just 5-foot-4. The height differential led to the Titans getting 18 offensive rebounds. Smith said her team should have done a better job at boxing out and limiting those second-chance opportunities.
Gordon, the nation’s 11th-best player in the class of 2021, according to ESPN, did everything she could to earn a state semifinal spot. The Pirates led by two points at the half (39-37) thanks to a Gordon fadeaway, buzzer-beating 3-pointer. But just before that shot, Gordon picked up her third foul, which changed the way she could play in the second half.
“I had to back off a little bit on defense,” Gordon said. “I could not go for some of the steals and blocks I wanted.”
Gordon said she was proud of the team’s seniors, especially Sharma.
“I loved playing with her,” Gordon said. “She is such a hard worker.”
The Pirates will need to figure out a way to deal with tall teams in Sharma’s absence. But with Gordon and Rodriguez back and Smith’s coaching, the Pirates will be primed to be a state title contender again.