The Tornadoes pushed the defending champs to the brink in a 62-61 loss.
Booker High coach Markus Black laughed during the postgame press conference.
He didn't know what else to do.
He was feeling so many emotions, he said, and the laughter was a defense mechanism against them. His team could only leave the locker room with red eyes. A different decision here, a different bounce there, and his team may still be playing basketball. Instead, Booker is headed home.
The Tornadoes fell 62-61 to Leesburg High (29-1) in the state final four at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland on Wednesday night. Leesburg, the defending Class 6A champions, hasn't lost to a Florida High School Athletic Association opponent since 2015, but Booker (29-3) gave the Yellow Jackets all they could handle despite being perceived as the underdog. It was a textbook back-and-forth game, seeing the lead change hands 11 times. Down seven points with a minute and a half to go, the Tornadoes gave a final push, getting to within one point with about 13 seconds left.
"I was thinking we were going to win it," senior Jordan Curtis said. "It was a great run, and I have a lot of confidence in my team. It came down to defense in the end, and we didn't execute."
They followed the first part of their plan perfectly, trapping Leesburg guard Cordrayius Graham in the corner, but they couldn't get a steal, and they didn't foul Graham before he passed the ball up court, and before they could react, the game was over.
Johnnie Williams IV led the Tornadoes with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Jordan Clark added 15 points and six boards, and Jaylen Jones and Jordan Curtis scored 13 and 12 points, respectively. For a team that had a habit of starting slow, the Tornadoes started this one on fire. Williams IV had a quick seven points in the first quarter, and Booker led for most of the frame.
"We came and punched them in the mouth," Black said. "We just didn't finish the job."
The Yellow Jackets were led by Lance Erving, who scored 28 points and willed his team out of multiple holes. Booker had leads of nine, seven, six points at different times, but couldn't hold any of them. Leesberg did what championship teams do, Black said, which is battle back.
The difference in the game was turnovers. Booker gave the ball up 15 times to Leesburg's five, and Black estimated the Yellow Jackets got 17 points off those giveaways. It was the one area of the game Booker knew it couldn't lose. The Tornadoes even had the word "turnovers" written on the board in their locker room at RP Funding Arena, Black said. The Leesburg pressure proved too much to handle.
Black said he had not yet addressed his senior class specifically, but added that it was the class that arrived at Booker at the same time he did, as the JV coach, and the players in that class grew with him. He told them one year later that they had a chance to reach the final four in the future, and he was right. They will have a shot again next year, too, but not with the class that started the program's turnaround.
"These seniors don't get another go at it, and that's the part I'm upset about," Black said. "But people need to understand: Booker is back on the map. We're not that doormat everyone is walking on. We're here.
"I don't care who you line up. We can go toe-to-toe with anybody. I wouldn't trade these guys for the world."