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When two mighty storms meet under the same roof, they blow the house down. In Friday's FHSAA Class 5A state final, the Clearwater Tornadoes challenged the Gainesville Hurricanes as no team has done since Eastside in the regular season, chipping the big Gainesville lead down to two points in the fourth quarter. The 'Canes rose to the occasion, winning head coach Kelly Beckham his first state title the old fashioned way – first with defense, then with shooting, and finally with free throws.
En route to their 53-46 win, Gainesville gusted to a 15-point second quarter lead on rub-your-eyes three-point shooting by T.J. Hall. Hall and Greg Gantt combined for 40 points on the night, with all but four of their floor shots coming from outside the arc. On the defensive end, the 'Canes applied ball pressure and forced the Tornadoes outside, exposing their weaker perimeter shooting. Gainesville attacked the Clearwater defense early, drawing fouls and getting team leaders Okaro White and Regan O'Rourke and point guard Cory Carden in foul trouble. Gainesville center Gabe Rutledge dominated the paint, controlling the boards and drawing charges.
Through district and regional tournaments, Gainesville had shown a tendency to slump at the beginning of the second half, allowing, say, a 20-point lead to dwindle to 10. In Wednesday's semifinal game against King High School, the Lions had surged in the third, putting on an 18-13 run to draw within 13, from a halftime deficit of 18. Gantt was on fire for Gainesville, though, and made six of eight second half shots to help ensure King never got any closer.
Friday was different. From a 28-17 lead at the half, the 'Canes found themselves on the receiving end of a very determined Clearwater team. The Tornadoes pressed, despite being in foul trouble almost since the tip, and went after the boards with renewed ambition. The result was that Gainesville had only two field goals in the second half, and none in the fourth quarter.
With four minutes left in the game, Clearwater was threatening, the score was 40-38 Gainesville, and the 'Canes hadn't scored in over four minutes. Hall, Gantt and Matt Huber provided all of Gainesville's 13 fourth quarter points from the free throw line, where Gantt went seven of eight.
The boos were deafening from the Tornado-heavy crowd every time Gantt stepped to the line, until the last time, with under five seconds left. Gantt shot in silence. At the other end, O'Rourke, who had saved Clearwater's semifinal against Dwyer with a last-second runner, heaved the ball from near half-court. The 'Canes, leading 53-46, watched the ball sail and the last seconds tick. Buzz. Pandemonium.
Beckham first came to Lakeland with the 1989 Bronson Eagles, and most recently with the 2002 Eagles. In the media room after the game, he was asked how this win, number 559, made him feel.
“Relieved,” he said.
“Happy, obviously. This was the third time – If I couldn't get it done this time...”
He clarified that there was no outside pressure, “only what I put on myself.”
Gainesville reached the state semifinal last year, but were smartly dismissed in a 61-38 loss to Dillard. When Beckham took over as head coach at Gainesville, he knew he'd have to win over the team, and they him. Asked when he knew the 'Canes were a team that could win it all, he responded immediately and certainly.
“I'd say it was the latter part of June, when we went to the Florida team camp and played extremely well there, and were able to win it,” he recalled.
“I think they began to believe in me and I saw the talent they had.”
Rutledge, Gant and Hall nodded in agreement.
“After the Florida camp, we all celebrated and that was when we knew he was the coach and this was the team that could do it,” said Rutledge.