The Gulf Coast High School girls basketball team exchanged high-fives and hugs Saturday night after winning the National Division championship at the Naples Holiday Shootout.
It was a big accomplishment for sure – each year the Shootout brings top-tier teams from around the country to Naples in what has become a well-respected event in the world of girls basketball.
But the Sharks’ celebration was muted. To them, earning a Shootout title is just a step toward the ultimate goal – a state championship.
“It feels great, but we don’t want to stop here,” Gulf Coast junior point guard Mya Giusto said. “We want to continue our success. This is a great point for us in the season, but we’re still not done.”
Gulf Coast (12-1) came from behind to beat New Orleans-Ursuline 53-51 in the National Division finals. Ursuline, ranked the 13th-best team in Louisiana among all classifications by MaxPreps, was the third powerful program the Sharks beat in as many nights to win the title.
In the American Division, Harrodsburg (Ky.) Mercer County beat Atlanta-Westlake 77-73 to win the championship in a matchup of nationally-ranked teams. Mercer is ranked No. 10 in the country and No. 1 in Kentucky by MaxPreps, which ranks Westlake 25th in the nation and fourth in Georgia.
In the first round, Gulf Coast knocked off Fort Lauderdale-Cardinal Gibbons, which won a regional championship last season. Then the Sharks beat Newtown-Council Rock North, which went to the Sweet 16 of its Pennsylvania state tournament last season.
“This was a big tournament for us,” Gulf Coast senior Jordan Cloutier said. “To knock off three teams that are among the best in the country, it’s an amazing feeling. Knowing that we played as a team, played our hearts out and worked our hardest, that’s the greatest.”
Gulf Coast became the second Southwest Florida team to win a Shootout championship with a big push in the game’s final 11 minutes.
Ursuline took a 39-30 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter. At that point Gulf Coast, which scored 17 points in the game’s first five minutes, had scored 13 points the previous 16 minutes.
That’s when the Sharks woke up, especially on defense. They outscored Ursuline 16-5 over the next seven minutes to take the lead for good, 46-45, with 3:34 to play.
“I just told (the players) we have to compete,” Woodruff said. “Teams are always bigger than us, and (Ursuline) was probably a little more athletic than us. But nobody has a bigger heart than Gulf Coast. We had to put that heart on our sleeves and go out and win the game.”
The only other local team to win the Shootout was Barron Collier in 2008, when the Cougars went on to win their second state championship in three years. Barron Collier won the tournament when all 16 teams competed in one bracket. Since 2013, the Shootout has consisted of two eight-team brackets – the National, which Gulf Coast won Saturday, and the American.
With four minutes left in the third quarter and the Lions up seven, Florida State commit Kourtney Weber had 19 of Ursuline’s 37 points. Weber had just three points the rest of the game. She went 11 minutes without scoring.
Yasmeen Chang, a Miami commit, scored a game-high 23 points for Gulf Coast and was named Most Valuable Player of the National Division. Chang led Sharks’ comeback, but the shot of the night came from Cloutier.
Committed to Stetson, Cloutier drilled a 3-pointer with 3:34 left to give Gulf Coast the lead for good. It had been a rough game for the senior sharpshooter. Cloutier was 1-of-7 shooting before her key 3 and finished with 6 points, less than half her season average.
“Shooters keep shooting,” Cloutier said. “I just had to have that mindset.”
The championship was iced by Giusto, who made both ends of her one-and-one free throws two times in the final 40 seconds with the Sharks clinging to a two-point lead both times. Giusto, committed to the University of Tampa, made 12 of 14 free throws Saturday.
“They’re free throws – if you can’t make ‘em you gotta find a new sport,” Giusto said.
Giusto added five steals and four assists. Chang had a team-high eight rebounds. Junior Sydney Eugene added six points and seven rebounds.
Mercer County 77, Westlake 73: Mercer used its sharpshooting to win the American Division title in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
The Titans (13-1) led by nine at halftime and stretched their lead to 18 just two minutes into the second half. Westlake, which has made the state quarterfinals in Georgia the past three years, stuck around but Mercer remained in control.
Louisville signee Seygan Robins, a candidate for Kentucky’s Miss Basketball, scored 26 points on 6-of-13 shooting. She averaged 25 points in three tournament games and was named MVP of the American Division.
“When our shots are falling, we’re pretty tough to beat,” Robins said. “All five of us can shoot the 3, and when it’s not falling we can get to the basket.”
Mercer shot 45.5 percent from the field, including 9 of 22 on 3-pointers (40.9 percent). Emmy Souder added 19 pionts and Lexy Lake scored 17.
Texas Tech commit Taylor Hosendove led Westlake with 21 points, followed by Anastasia Warren with 19. The Lions weren’t within five points of Mercer in the second half until banking in a 3 at the buzzer.
Yasmeen Chang, Gulf Coast – National MVP
Seygan Robins, Mercer – American MVP
Destanni Henderson, Fort Myers
Taylor Sutton, Greater Atlanta Christian
Ciaja Harbison, Male
Samantha Puisis, Mason
Koi Love, Miami Country Day
Taylor Hosendove, Westlake
Kourtney Weber, Ursuline
Julia Martinez, Loyola
Naples Holiday Shootout At Gulf Coast High School
Wilmette (Ill.) Loyola 61, Braden River 49
New Orleans (La.)-Ursuline 48, Lehigh 36
Fort Myers 53, Newtown (Pa.)-Council Rock North 48*
Gulf Coast 53, Cardinal Gibbons 41
* Council Rock automatically advances because Fort Myers was replacement team
Louisville-Male 51, Mason (Ohio) 48
Harrodsburg (Ky.)-Mercer 82, Fort Myers 77
Atlanta-Westlake 64, Miami-Country Day 35
Greater Atlanta Christian 43, Troy (Ala.)-Charles Henderson 36
Game 9 – Consolation, Mason (Ohio) 57, Miami Country Day 49
Game 11 – Consolation, Charles Henderson 58, Fort Myers 53
Game 13 – Semifinal, Westlake 60, Male 50
Game 15 – Semifinal, Mercer County (Ky.) 84, Greater Atlanta Christian 68
Game 10 – Consolation, Lehigh 56, Braden River 53
Game 12 – Consolation, Mercer County (Ky.) 69, Cardinal Gibbons 47*
Game 14 – Semifinal, Ursuline 62, Loyola 57
Game 16 – Semifinal, Gulf Coast 56, Council Rock North 49
* Cardinal Gibbons automatically advances because Mercer County was replacement team
Seventh place – Miami Country Day 75, Fort Myers 74
Fifth place – Mason (Ohio) 68, Troy (Ala.)-Charles Henderson 39
Third place – Male 74, Greater Atlanta Christian 64
Championship – Mercer County 77, Westlake 73
Seventh place – Troy (Ala.)- Charles Henderson* 69, Braden River 66
* Charles Henderson is playing as a replacement team
Fifth place – Cardinal Gibbons 40, Lehigh 24
Third place – Loyola 42, Council Rock North 38
Championship – Gulf Coast 53, Ursuline 51