- February 15, 2023
The Mainland boys basketball players were crushed as they grabbed their runners-up medals after falling to No. 1 seed Belen Jesuit of Miami 49-30 in the Class 5A state championship game March 4 in Lakeland.
The Wolverines (28-4) celebrated their first championship in school history. Buccaneers coach Joe Giddens made his players watch them get their trophy and medals after the game.
“I told them to watch and soak it in,” he said. “I told them to watch them get the trophy because I wanted them to see what it feels like. We know how we feel now; we know how we don’t want to feel again.”
The teams were tied at the end of the first quarter at 10-10, but Belen Jesuit outscored Mainland in each of the remaining quarters — 9-2, 13-8 and 17-10. Bucs point guard Nathan Kirk was held to five points while the rest of the players were also pinned to single digits. Javi Rosell led Belen Jesuit with 22 points while teammate Bryce Fitzgerald scored 13.
What I love about this team is that they love each other. At times when something bad happens, they go to their teammate to let them know we got it. — Joe Giddens, Mainland coach
Giddens said his players had never played a team like Belen Jesuit which pressed the entire game and operated differently than other teams they had faced. The Wolverines are coached by Gaston Rodríguez who already had two state championships under his belt with Champagnat Catholic and Coral Reef Senior High.
“At the time, we could not do something that we normally do on the regular,” Giddens said. “Worst time for it to happen and it did. We did not execute like we could have.”
The Buccaneers finished 25-6 after playing a monster schedule against teams ranked in the Florida High School Athletic Association top 20, such as third-ranked Olympia of Orlando, and top ranked teams from Georgia and Virginia.
“The gauntlet schedule is something I’m going to do every year,” Giddens said. “We are going to continue to play those kind of teams to get us ready.”
Mainland advanced to the final with a 43-38 victory over St. Petersburg in the semifinals March 2 in Lakeland.
After taking the District 4-5A title with a 73-52 victory over Menendez, the Bucs cracked a 25-year dry spell by winning the Region 1 final in a nail biter, 35-34 against Columbia, sending them to the state semifinals. Kirk, a freshman, racked up 18 points against St. Pete, while Angelo Mack had nine.
“When we won to go to the final four, I was very emotional,” Giddens said. “My players came to hug me and said, ‘Coach, you all right? We got you.’ To go with them to the final four and enjoy that moment is the best.”
Giddens believes this could be one of his best defensive teams. Their focus and being able to make adjustments on the fly shows their basketball intelligence is extremely high. One of the most positive aspects of this team, Giddens said, is they always look toward the next play and do not dwell on mistakes.
“What I love about this team is that they love each other,” Giddens said. “At times, when something bad happens, they go to their teammate to let them know we got it.”
The team was given time off following the defeat, but Giddens got a text on Monday, March 6, from his guys saying they wanted to get back in the gym. They stayed in the gym until 8:30 at night lifting weights and shooting baskets.
“I think my guys really learned from it,” he said “That right there tells me they really want it. They got a chance to get their feet wet and they want to go back. This says a lot about my coaches and my staff in what we install in those guys.”
This is the first year that Mainland has had its football team and basketball team bring home state runners-up titles the same year. It's also the first year the girls basketball team won a state championship. Giddens knows it has a lot to do with their creed — “Buc Pride Never Dies.”
“Oh man, that’s what I believe,” Giddens said. “When I was in high school, that’s all I knew. When I was a kid, I always wanted to play for Mainland. I wanted to break my uncle’s record at Mainland. It’s just something I always wanted to do.”