LAKELAND — True to his role, Mason Cooper was the first Bulldog off the bench on Saturday afternoon.

He didn’t walk. He didn’t run. He jumped, flying out of his seat to meet teammates Dallas Stone and Markus Maloy at midcourt for chest bump as the final buzzer sounded and gave way to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars”, the rest of Crestview’s basketball team sprinting after.

After 34 years, the draught was over. The Bulldogs were state champions, besting top-ranked Dillard 50-40 at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland for the 7A title.

“It’s crazy,” senior Devin Voisin said. “I would never have expected a team from the Panhandle as small as Crestview winning a state title. It’s crazy, especially since 1985.”

Hey Bulldogs. You’re state champions.

Crestview beats Dillard 50-40

— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) March 9, 2019// //

One of the last to enter the dawg pile, Crestview coach Greg Watson was the first to get his hands on the championship trophy, holding it high above his head toward those who had made the 415-mile trip from Crestview to Lakeland, a slight grin on his face.

When he turned to face his team, the grin turned into a smile, mirroring those of each player, who reached up to put a hand on the Bulldogs’ prize.

Some doubted, but Watson always knew. He knew this group was special.

He knew it was “meant to be.”

“It was just a weird feeling that I had that special things were happening,” he said. “I think everybody believed they could do it, and that’s what I told them early on. I told ’em, ‘You guys are good enough to win a state championship … I think we finally started believing that as the year went on.”

The Bulldogs (26-6 overall) definitely believed Saturday. Most were nervous when they woke, but they were focused. They were focused during their morning shoot around at Lake Gibson High School. They were focused during lunch at Subway. They were focused during their bus ride to the arena, and they were focused from tip to buzzer.

They were focused, and Dillard (21-7) couldn’t match it.

The Panthers won the opening tip but fumbled away their opening possession. Senior forward Kyle Jackson jumped in front of a pass intended for Makerere Williams, setting the tone for what would be an in-your-face defensive performance.

Dillard’s 40 points was its lowest scoring output of the season; the Panthers came in averaging 58.3 points per game and 47 points during their playoff run.

“Coach worked with us hard on defense,” senior Marcus Purcell said. “He told us what to do, what to work on. We all listened to that. These last playoff games, everything he said on defense, we listened to. It’s been working and it paid off now.”

Crestview led only 6-4 after the first quarter, but it again got a shot in the arm on offense from senior Jaden Voisin. After scoring 18 against Lehigh on Friday, the 6-foot guard scored nine in the first half Saturday, leading Crestview to a 16-12 halftime lead. When he returned to the floor in the second half, he promptly drilled a 3-pointer from the wing to grow that lead to 19-12 and give the Bulldogs some breathing room.

Bound for South Alabama this fall on a football scholarship, Voisin finished with a game-high 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting, chipping in five rebounds, a block and a steal. In two games in Lakeland, he racked up 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and shot 47.8 percent.

“This is the greatest feeling I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I’m not gonna lie to you. I know I’m a football player, man, but this beats everything I’ve done in football so far. It’s a state championship. It feels awesome.”

Leading for virtually the entire game, Crestview seemingly put the Panthers away at the end of the third quarter.

With 13 second left in the frame, Purcell drove into the paint, drawing in Dillard’s defense, before he dished to forward Chris Basil standing on the left corner. Basil reared back and knocked down a 3 to put the Bulldogs up 11. He mimed shooting a bow and arrow as he hopped back on defense.

“That was huge,” Watson said. “When that went in, not that I thought the game was over ’cause you never do; I didn’t think the game was over with one minute to go, but that was a big, big shot.”

Dillard’s Williams answered with a stickback on the other end at the buzzer, but Crestview and Basil had made their point: The 7A state title game had no room for a Dillard comeback.

The Bulldogs outscored the Dillard 21-20 in the final frame, as smiles started to spread across their faces. The Panthers tried to foul, but Crestview kept knocking down its free throws, going 15-of-21 at the charity stripe in the fourth.

Up 10 with 0.8 seconds left, Watson subbed out his starters for the third straight game. Maloy, Jack Corbin, Terrance Staples, Dallas Stone and Chase Moulten took the floor to thunderous applause from the Crestview crowd, as Purcell, the Voisins, Cooper and Basil hit the bench, handing out high fives and hugs.

“I didn’t want it to be like where I rub it in, but I wanted all the guys to get on the court for the state championship ’cause I think that’s pretty special,” Watson said.

Less than a second later, everyone was on the floor, celebrating with a mosh pit at midcourt.

“Words can’t explain it right now,” Watson said. “It really hasn’t sunk in for sure. Just the smiles on these guys faces, that means the world to me.

“For me to be able to tell them ‘Guys, we’re fixing to win a state championship,’ and for them to be able to be able to do it and see the smiles and hugs, that’s what I’m gonna remember from this afternoon.”