It finally was time for the Lakewood Ranch High Mustangs to release their emotions.
The Blanche Ely High boys basketball team had stormed the court after its 57-52, Class 8A state championship victory March 9 over Lakewood Ranch at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs, who finished the season 23-7, were left to console each other. Calm and determined throughout the state playoffs, they had advanced farther in the state playoffs than any team in program history. Even so, that accomplishment wasn't enough to overshadow the pain of falling just short of their ultimate goal.
Lakewood Ranch coach Jeremy Schiller understood.
"There were two words we said in the locker room (postgame)," Schiller said. "Proud — I am very proud of our entire team. And love — because we love each other very much. Just because it didn't turn out like we wanted, it does not eliminate those two words. Every one of our guys should walk out with his head high.
"It is OK to cry. It is OK to be emotional. These guys work year-round at this.The ball did not bounce our way tonight against an exceptionally good team. They made the plays to win and we did not. That does not mean we should not be proud of our entire season."
Lakewood Ranch held a 26-24 lead at halftime and led 43-39 in the fourth quarter but couldn't overcome turnovers down the stretch as Blanche Ely pulled away to finish 24-6.
It was an especially painful ending for Mustangs' senior starters Josh Young (forward) and Lantz Barton (guard) as well as their fellow seniors — forwards Logan Higgins, Alex Baron and Dylan Wellard and guard Maxwell Corsiglia.
Next season, the Mustangs return three starters who all will be seniors — guards Keon Buckley, Christian Shaneyfelt and Christian Perez. They also return forward Luke Lecroy, who will be a senior and played a pivotal role off the bench for the Mustangs. With so much talent, Lakewood Ranch is likely to be a state title contender again.
Young said he will miss the program.
"The family culture," he said when asked what he would remember most about his two years with the Mustangs after moving from Collierville, Tenn. "Everybody is together. I am going to remember how much everyone loves each other."
Schiller called his team a bunch of "bad dudes," meaning it as a compliment. Schiller said they stepped up in the big moments and fought against the adversity of a tough schedule. He hopes Young, who is attending Howard University, and the rest of the seniors will come back to support future Mustang teams.
"I take a lot of pride in this," Schiller said. "Our program is a lifelong bond."
The loss will stick in the minds of Mustangs fans for a while. Lakewood Ranch had the edge at halftime thanks to playing the scrappy, relentless basketball the program has been known for under Schiller.
Unfortunately, the Mustangs, who turned the ball over 19 times, got a bit sloppy in the second half to allow Blanche Ely the opening it needed.
Schiller said the character of his players kept them from being intimidated by Blanche Ely's size advantage.
Buckley led the Mustangs with 17 points. Shaneyfelt had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Young finished with 10 points and six rebounds.
Blanche Ely's Aderes Staton-McCray led all scorers with 19 points. It is the Tigers' third state championship in four years.