After being up 15 at the half, a tough second half sees Blanche Ely best the Wolverines — ending their historic season.
The whole year had been building up to this moment.
Here, at the Class 8A Final Four in Lakeland, Windermere had fought every step of the way to play with the big boys — a feat that no one expected the second-year program to do.
Up until this point in the playoffs, the Wolverines had battled through two overtime games and a narrow 59-57 win over Wharton in the regional final. Luck seemed to be on the Wolverines’ side
Until it wasn’t.
Against the defending 8A champs Blanche Ely at the RP Funding Center, the luck ran out in a heart breaking 56-54 loss Friday, March 8.
“It’s a little bit of a blur,” said Head Coach Mark Griseck. “They banked a three, and we missed free throws. At the end we had our chances, and we didn’t convert. The games where we won close, we made the plays to win, but tonight we didn’t and they did — I credit them.”
The Wolverines (27-5) came out in the first half firing on all cylinders and led by 15 going into the break. But something seemed to change when the horn sounded to kick off the second half.
The Tigers (25-6) spent the third and fourth quarters chipping away at the Wolverines’ lead with a combination of offensive runs and added defensive pressure.
The full-court presses the Tigers utilized rattled the Wolverines into making costly mistakes and threw the game in their favor in a tremendous way. The press was so effective that the highly efficient ball handling of Trey Moss seemed thrown off as he turned the ball over seven times.
It was a real turning point, Griseck said.
“They do what they do,” he said. “Second half, they really got after us, and we succumbed to the pressure a little bit.”
Things for the Wolverines, unfortunately, got worse in crunch time.
After the Tigers tied the game at 54, the Wolverines fouled Malachi Hazelton on a drive to the bucket with 3.8 seconds to go. The 6-foot-5 junior sank both shots to give the Tigers the 56-54 lead — it was the first time all night the Tigers had the lead.
The free throws proved to be the difference-maker. The Wolverines ran out of time before getting the final shot off — sealing an end to a magical season.
“(I’m) so proud of my guys,” Griseck said. “(They’re a) great group of kids — love them — and a great group of seniors and in the second year of our school they’ve left quite a legacy that is going to be tough to match.”
Losing the way the Wolverines did is a gut punch — although there may be consolation in the fact that the Tigers went on to win the state title the following day. But what this year’s team did will leave a legacy, Griseck said. And more importantly, it has set a foundation at Windermere that fans, students, players and coaches should be excited about.
Not many schools in their second year can say they have a state Final Four appearance. Not many schools that have been around for decades can say that, either. Fewer understand that more than senior Dakota Rivers, who was a co-captain alongside teammate Carter Zavada.
For Rivers the loss stings, but he will remember everything he and his brothers have done the past two years.
“I love playing with them,” said Rivers, who’ll be joining the Florida Gulf Coast University basketball team this fall. “We all came from different schools. Some of us came from the same school, and most of us didn’t make the team at our other schools, so just by coming here they’ve given us so much confidence to go out there and give it all we got.
“We made it to the Final Four — I’m so blessed to even be here and be talking with you right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of teams that wish they were here where we are right now. I love these guys.”