Nease girls end dominating season with narrow loss in state title game

Veteran coach proud of ‘special group of players’ as standout seniors prepare for next step

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“It’s not the medal you’ve got around your neck, it what’s behind the medal, in your heart.”

That’s what a former Nease basketball player told the Nease girls basketball team after its 43-40 loss to Dillard in the Class 7A state championship game on Saturday, March 2, in Lakeland.

It’s something prolific girls basketball coach Sherri Anthony understands well, although it can be tough to accept in the immediate aftermath of such a heartbreaking defeat. 

 “I’m still walking around pretty aimlessly right now,” Anthony said. “Still thinking ‘what if this, what if that.’”

Anthony guided the Lady Panthers to a dominating 29-2 season, including a 41-home game winning streak, led by highly touted seniors Kiya Turner, Camille Hobby, Tia Robinson and Peyton Carter. The team looked ready to roll through the state tournament, especially after dethroning the defending state champion Fort Myers with a 52-40 in the semifinals on Friday night. 

But the turnaround to play Dillard for the state title was a fast one — less than 24 hours — and may have taken a toll.

“We were just as prepared for Saturday’s game (as Friday’s), but physically you’re more tired,” Anthony said. “We played within 20 hours of the first game. Shots just weren’t falling. Defensively we held them to 43 points which is good. We had a chance at the end with 5 seconds left and had an out-of-bounds play and went for that final shot. We hit that shot 80 out of 100 times, but it just didn’t fall.”

Anthony said she’d like to see changes to the state tournament made so teams have an extra day between games, giving players time to prepare, heal — and enjoy their previous win. Particularly between the semifinals and the final.

“All of the other playoff games (prior to the state tournament), you have days off in between, then the most important game of the whole season, you have less than 24 hours to prepare,” Anthony said. “I think the whole tournament would be better if everyone had that extra day.”

But even with the sting of the loss still fresh, Anthony said she couldn’t be prouder of her players and how they conducted themselves — on and off the court.

Three of the seniors — Hobby, Turner and Carter – have already signed with Division I schools, and Anthony expects Robinson to make her decision in the next few weeks. The coach is looking forward to being able to see them play at the next level.

She said this team’s dedication to the sport and their loyalty to the program and each other were what really made them a special group. 

“That’s the legacy I’ve always wanted for my program,” Anthony said. “To be loyal, to be true to your school.”

Loyalty is something Anthony has been able to instill at Nease, primarily leading by example. The coach finished her 33rd season at Nease and has compiled over 600 wins with the school. That loyalty was apparent in the state tournament, where a number of former players, including four of the starting five from the 1998-99 state champion team, made the trek to Lakeland to show their support.

“I’m very blessed to be the one who says, I coached all those kids,” Anthony said. “It was amazing. That’s the part that choked me up more than anything was to see them all together.”

After 33 seasons, Anthony said it’s the love of the game, and dedication to the players, that keep her coming back. 

“I love to compete, I love the coaching aspect of it,” Anthony said. “That’s what drives me to stay in it is because I like to see how I can get those kids to the next level or how I can make them a better player. That’s the part I really love. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t involved in it. I re-evaluate every year, but right now I don’t see it not happening again.”

And even though the season may not have ended the way she hoped, Anthony said it’s hard to be too upset considering the season and a group of seniors who have gone 110-16 in just four years, including winning three district titles, four Sweet 16 games, one Elite Eight game, a Final Four game and finishing as the runner-up state champion.

“We can’t be anything but proud and blessed at this point,” Anthony said. “We would have loved to have won it all, but somebody’s got to lose and it just happened to be us that day.

“… It’s been a great, great journey.”

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