Mainland girls basketball coach Brandon Stewart ran out on the basketball court as the fourth quarter buzzer sounded. Cheers erupted from the stands as family and friends pushed their way toward the team at the Vince Carter Athletic Center on Friday, Feb. 17.
For the first time in Mainland High School history, the girls basketball team advanced to the final four after winning the Region 1-5A championship with a 47-44 victory over Ridgeview.
The Buccaneers (19-8) head to the state semifinals on Thursday, Feb. 23, to face Kissimmee Gateway (24-6).
“I just wanted to win the game, whether it was the first game of the season or the third game of the season — I just wanted to win the game,” Stewart said. “I kept the girls focused on that. It was rough because there were a lot of distractions out there, but they did it.”
Top scorers of the game were Anovia Sheals, with 20 points; Jordan Boddie, with 11 points; and Tia Dobson, with eight. Freshman Nacoya Blocton led the Panthers with 14 points.
Honestly, I think we played steady as a team. Even at the points where it seemed like it was rough, we were able to calm back down and take ourselves forward. — Brandon Stewart, Mainland coach
The Buccaneers led the game until Ridgeview tipped the score to 16-15 with a little over five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Play became aggressive as both teams vied to establish dominance at the net. Yashaiya Yisrael and Sheals each finished with four fouls and Tia Dobson was teetering on the brink of fouling out.
Stewart believes his team’s ability to negotiate unique situations stems from the diversity in their season schedule.
“The type of schedule we created was against so many different teams and situations,” he said. “I told them we had been in situations like this before.”
At 5 foot-3, the two smallest players on the team were instrumental in pressuring the Panthers defensively. Senior Yisreal and sophomore Samantha Lecas were subbed interchangeably throughout the game.
“Senior year has been a roller coaster,” Yisreal said. “From facing adversity of all sizes to becoming regional champs. I truly believe we deserve nothing less. It is a blessing to have come this far, but it’s not over yet.”
Lecas gets her love of basketball from her family. She has been playing since she was a “little kid,” and loves the intensity. She is ranked second on the team for 3-pointers and third for steals.
“The highlight of the game for me was my and one,” she said of making a shot while getting fouled. “Definitely going to work on my shooting, be prepared and be ready to play good (defense). We’re great. We are going to go to states and win.”
Both Mainland and Gateway’s run to the state championship was cut short during regional playoffs last year. The Buccaneers were halted in the semifinal round by Pine Forest, and Bishop Moore defeated Gateway with a buzzer-beating layup in the regional final. With the teams coming off five- and six-week win streaks, the game is stacking up to be a close match.
Mainland athletic director Terrence Anthony believes that Stewart’s ability to create a family atmosphere and develop a team that supports his philosophy has been instrumental in the Bucs’ success.
This year, the team acquired two transfers who have wholeheartedly bought into this mindset: junior forward Sheals from Winter Haven and senior guard Boddie from Lake Mary.
“The entire team is an amazing group of young ladies that know their roles,” Anthony said. “Everyone has bought into Coach Stewart’s philosophy. I think if our girls play their game, I think we’ll be playing for the state championship on Saturday. Win, lose or draw, it will be historic. It’s historic now, but getting to Saturday brings on a whole new meaning, ‘But Pride Never Dies.’”