SANTA ROSA BEACH – “Can we settle down?”
Kevin Craig’s first-quarter message – well, more like scream, heard loud and clear across the Hawk’s Nest – wasn’t exclusive to South Walton in Tuesday’s Region 3-1A championship against Baker.
Final four trip on the line? You wouldn’t guess it by the opening eight minutes of play, which featured 3-of-14 shooting and seven turnovers by both clubs en route to an 8-all tie.
South Walton (22-7), taking heed of their coach’s advice, settled down. Baker (20-6), reminiscent of the three double-digit losses to the Seahawks this season, had no answer.
Savannah Slade and Gracie Ricci flirted with triple-doubles – Slade with 18 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks and Ricci with 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists – and the Seahawks cruised to a 51-30 win and into their second straight final four.
It's the third final four trip for the Seahawks in five years, including the Seahawks' first-ever state title in 2013. That was Craig's third state title, including two at Fort Walton Beach in 1994 and 1999.
“It means a lot,” Slade said of making it back to Lakeland. “We’re growing. Our goal is not to win state at first, but to get to the final four. Once we get there our goal is to win it all. The fact we’ve made it here is exciting and now we just need to get prepared and not get cocky."
“This means everything,” Ricci added. “We do it for the people who played before us who created the program and also our teammates. We do it for coach Craig.”
But Craig was a little worried early on after a rocky first quarter. But the Seahawks built a 22-13 halftime lead – on the shoulders of Slade’s 11 points – and were up 38-21 entering the fourth quarter.
“It’s the region finals and the nerves showed,” said Craig, who’s closing in on 800 wins during his illustrious career. “I saw it at the shootaround in seventh period. We were uptight and they’ve got a good team. But in the second quarter we took control of the game, got them into foul trouble and made free throws. Then in the third quarter and second half we executed and played our game.”
Awaiting in the state semifinals on Feb. 21 in Lakeland is Lafayette, which defeated Williston 24-22 Tuesday night to set up the 11 a.m. tip. The District 5-1A champion is 18-8 and on a four-game win streak.
“We went and watched Lafayette a couple of weeks ago,” Craig said. “At this point everyone’s good and we’ll worry about that tomorrow.”
This will also be Craig's ninth final four and the road ahead — the Seahawks would potentially play Wildwood if they get past Lafayette – is treacherous.
“At this point it’s a coin toss,” Ricci said. “Everybody deserves to be there.”
Is this South Walton team better than last year's? Craig thinks so.
“Much better,” Craig said. “Just because of experience.”
So how’d the Seahawks get here?
Well, Tuesday night’s defensive effort was a big reason.
Every Baker shot was contested. Every 50-50 rebound went to the Seahawks. Every drive featured a switch or the long reach of Slade. When all was said and done, the Seahawks held the Gators to a 19-percent shooting effort as only Ayajah Coleman reached double-digit points with 14 points.
“We played really good defense tonight,” Craig said. “We really were on every shot. When you have someone there, it’s tough to be find a rhythm.”
While Ricci and Slade filled up the stat sheet, South Walton had several role players step up. Allee Coble delivered 10 points and eight rebounds, Devany Beard secured eight boards and Hayley Seible scored eight points.
“Of course Gracie Ricci and Savannah played great games, but I thought our post players Devany Beard and Aidan Collins and Georgia Johnson off the bench stepped up. And Allee kind of found her game later.”
The Seahawks made their run in the second quarter, where they outscored the Gators 14-5. Slade scored eight of those, including a 3 from the left wing to beat the buzzer and give the Seahawks a 22-13 lead.
“Sometimes we forget how good she really is,” Ricci said.
Baker had no answer as they fell just short of what would have been the program’s first final four since 2004. Baker ends the year 0-4 against South Walton after losing 58-43, 60-49, 62-49 and now 51-30 to the Seahawks.