Oliver Berens finally pulled his head out of his hands and started yelling the same three words over and over as St. Thomas Aquinas finally celebrated its first girls’ basketball state championship.
“We finished it!” the coach kept repeating. “We finished it!”
His players ran in all different directions on the court at the RP Funding Center after Apopka Wekiva’s halfcourt heave fell short and the Raiders, two years after heartbreak, finally pulled out a 62-60 win in the Class 6A championship.
St. Thomas Aquinas (17-4) trailed nearly the entire way — although never by more than five in the second half — and made a game-winning push in the last 1:20 when star senior Samara Spencer, who went 0 of 7 in the first half, forced two turnovers and scored four straight points to put the Raiders ahead 61-60 in the last minute.
Two years earlier, St. Thomas Aquinas lost in the title game when the Raiders called a timeout they didn’t have in the final seconds of overtime and officials assessed the them a crippling technical foul. On Saturday, the same sort of self-inflicted wound nearly cost St. Thomas Aquinas again.
With 14.5 seconds remaining and the Raiders clinging to a 61-60 lead, Spencer dribbled off her knee in the backcourt and the ball rolled out of bounds. Berens called his final timeout and St. Thomas Aquinas set up for one championship-winning defensive stop.
“Usually in that moment, I would’ve been mad at myself,” said Spencer, who signed a national letter of intent with the Arkansas Razorbacks last year, “but there was 14 seconds left. I trusted my team. I knew we were going to get a defensive stop or something good was going to happen that was going to go our way, so I just had faith that we were going to get the job done.”
The Raiders trapped and forced Wekiva (24-4) to take its final timeout
On the Mustangs’ next inbound play, Jada Green dove to deflect the pass and a scramble began. Three bodies hit the deck and a pass by Wekiva guard Shadaria Smith from her knees rolled out of bounds. The Raiders took over, Green went to the line and made 1 of 2 free throws, and St. Thomas Aquinas made history in Lakeland.
“The only thought that was really going through my head was, I have to get that ball,” said Green, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-6 shooting. “I didn’t end up getting it, but I tipped it out, then they ended up turning it over after that. I just had to get the ball.”
The championship came just two days after the Raiders rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit in the 6A semifinals Thursday against Punta Gorda Charlotte and just 11 days after they snapped a six-game losing streak against rival Blanche Ely in the Region 4-6A semifinals on a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds.
St. Thomas Aquinas again barely led Saturday against the Mustangs, who are ranked No. 25 in the nation by MaxPreps.
With 1:59 remaining, Wekiva guard Jada Eads hit a jumper to put the Mustangs up 60-57. Spencer got the line for two free throws and then put on a one-man press, shuffling her feet to force a turnover. While the No. 32 Raiders couldn’t capitalize on the extra possession, Spencer made another play on defense to win the game.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ defensive game plan revolved around getting the ball out of Eads’ hands and it mostly worked — the freshman only scored 19 points after scoring seven in the first quarter. She brought the ball up to midcourt and Spencer jumped at her for a double team. The senior deflected a pass to Karina Gordon and the star sophomore launched a pass down the court to Spencer, who dropped in the go-ahead layup with 58 seconds left.
After scoring one point in the first half, Spencer finished with 17 and seven rebounds. Gordon, who helped carry the offense in the first half, finished with 15 points, and junior Breanna Gustave logged a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“We wanted to win it for her,” said Gustave, who hit the game-winner in the region semis.
Spencer is one of only two seniors on the roster and one of the only contributors left from St. Thomas Aquinas’ heartbreaking loss in 2019. Her career coincided with the best run of success in Raiders history. On Saturday, she finally brought them to the summit.
“I didn’t like the feeling of losing,” Spencer said. “I knew that I wanted to go out with a bang.”