LAKELAND — Brittany Brown was inconsolable.
Just minutes after lifting her team into overtime with a 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer, the senior lay face down on the court, banging both fists on the hardwood in front of her bench.
She didn’t even look across the court to Edgewater’s Nyala Shuler, who just seconds earlier had stolen an inbounds pass with 1.9 seconds left, dribbled to a spot 35 feet from the basket on the right wing and drew a reach-in foul from Brown with no time remaining.
Shuler, who was guaranteed two free throws on the non-shooting foul, only needed one shot. The senior stepped to the line, dribbled twice and calmly sank the game-winner to lift the Fightin’ Eagles to a 50-49 win and their second straight 6A state championship.
“Going up to the free throw line, I just thought to myself that this is what I’ve been working for all season, practicing my free throws almost every day in practice,” said Shuler, who had 17 points and 11 boards. “When I stepped up to the line, I did nothing else but pray and make sure I did everything else right.”
On the other side of the court Lauren Day, who had delivered yet another double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds, sat with a towel over her head. Next to her, fellow starters Brittany Washington, Caneisaya Matthews and Shavonna Spaw also showed the heavy weight of the loss, tears consuming their faces that stared aimlessly at the floor.
Their perfect season, now relegated to an impressive 31-1, was no more. That elusive first state championship for the program would have to wait at least another year.
Meanwhile, Edgewater had another banner to raise. The Fightin’ Eagles had done what ninth-ranked St. Augustine, seventh-ranked Winter Haven, sixth-ranked Pensacola and second-ranked Pine Forest couldn’t do in the state tournament. Unlike Pine Forest, who watched their season come to an end on a Brittany Brown buzzer beater, the Fightin’ Eagles wouldn’t be done in by Brown’s heroics.
“That was our third title and this was the best one yet,” Edgewater coach Malcolm Lewis said.
While Choctaw coach Don Brown admitted the loss was the culmination of several deficiencies — namely a slow start, some costly late turnovers and a rare 4-for-18 shooting effort from Brittany Brown — there was no escaping the last-second whistle.
“As far as a controversial call, it’s just difficult right now,” he said. “… I know (Edgewater’s) been here but … let’s don’t give things away. Just let somebody earn it. I felt like maybe some things were handed to them on a platter.”
Brown said he thought the ball was tipped on the inbound pass and the clock shouldn’t have allowed for Shuler to catch the pass, pause, take a couple of dribbles and draw the foul.
“One point nine seconds, really, I thought the buzzer should have went off when they caught it,” he said. “I guess (the refs) saw a foul and we just have to live with it.”
That explanation did little for Brittany Brown, who simply said, “It wasn’t a foul.”
There was no controversy in the call for Edgewater’s Lewis, who was arguing for the foul even as the whistle blew. When the nearest referee signaled that it was indeed a reach-in that came before the horn, Lewis let off a fury of fist pumps knowing a win was imminent.
“It was definitely the right call,” he said. “I was thinking we were going to have to run out there with a towel because they were trying to take her clothes off. They really grabbed her well. It was clear as day.”
While not as adamant about the call, Shuler said, “I thought it was going to be a foul.”
The debated finish followed a back-and-forth overtime that was made possible by Brown’s fourth-quarter heave, which came after Day cut Edgewater’s five-point lead to three with 8 seconds left.
Shuler went to the line with a chance to make it a two-possession game with 5 seconds left, but she missed the front end of the 1-and-1. Day secured the rebound and hit Brittany Brown up the left sideline. Brown then dribbled to about 30 feet and banked in the prayer.
“I knew I had to hit it for us to go into overtime,” she said.
The clutch buzzer-beater came as no surprise to her dad and coach, who has seen her come through time and time again.
“I’ve seen it happen a lot,” he said. “Being her dad and watching her grow up, I’ve seen it from middle school all the way through high school. I had a feeling and I looked at her and told her on the free throw line, ‘If she misses this shot, take it down and take a shot at it.’ … When it went in I wasn’t surprised at all.”
That shot was just one of four makes for Brown, who finished with 10 points. It was the first time in the state tournament she scored below 22.
“My teammates stepped up tonight but I didn’t,” she said. “They played their heart out this entire game and they were dependent on me and I didn’t come through.”
The shooting woes were a continuation of a 6-for-26 shooting effort in the semifinals, but in that tilt she scored 26 points on the strength of a 12-for-14 effort from the line. On Saturday she shot, and missed, one free throw.
Trimaine McCullough, who scored a game-high 17 for the Fightin’ Eagles, said Brittany Brown’s struggles had a lot to do with her stifling defensive effort.
“Brittany Brown, she’s right-hand dominant,” McCullough said. “She would take me here and there, but I knew how to stop her. I forced her to her left the whole game.”
The Florida State bound senior shot just 2 of 10 from the floor and missed all five attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
Her teammates, specifically Washington and Spaw, picked up the slack. Washington went 3 of 5 for seven points of her 10 points. Spaw, who ended with nine points and seven boards, added five points in the first half, the last two coming on a layup at the end to cap a 6-0 run to give the Indians to a 22-21 lead.
Day led the Indians into the fourth tied at 31 with six third-quarter points, and Brown’s heave led the Indians into overtime.
Once there, the teams traded baskets, the final one a Matthews shot from the left wing to know the score at 49.
But the late turnover and foul set the stage for Shuler to end Choctaw’s perfect season.
“We just have to pick our heads up,” coach Brown said. “It was a great season and no one can take anything away from us.”