By Kyle LoJacono
The 2010-10 Land O’ Lakes girls basketball team did things no other has in program history, but its season ended in the Class 4A regional finals Feb. 19.
The Gators (24-3) lost their first home contest of the year 61-49 to Leesburg, but are still the first in program history to win two playoff games to reach the regional finals.
The trip to the regional finals is a stark turnaround for Land O’ Lakes, which won only four games last season. The team added starters Shanel Sweet and Simone Brown, transfers from Gaither and Wesley Chapel respectively, and a new coach.
“It was a good team and we’re proud of ourselves,” said Gators first-year coach Laurie Fitzpatrick. “We felt we could have gone to state. I’m proud of my team. It’s my first year and you couldn’t really ask for more.”
Senior Julia Della Penna said team chemistry is a big reason for the rebound year.
“We work so well together,” Della Penna said before the region finals. “To have new teammates come in, Sweet and Simone, it’s been a great experience my senior year.”
Land O’ Lakes had a 27-25 lead at halftime, but Leesburg (24-7) pushed the pace in the second quarter and their fast-break offense seemed to take the last breath out of the Gators. The Yellowjackets also had the advantage in height, and their press defense opened a 43-35 advantage to start the fourth quarter.
“Two of my girls were sick and of course it was Simone and Sweet, so I knew tonight wasn’t going to be a good night,” Fitzpatrick said. “They played their hearts out, but it was tough. I knew, I told them at halftime just play your hearts out, but after halftime they were done.”
Sweet had a team-high 20 points in the region finals, followed by Brown’s 17 and Della Penna’s eight.
In the semifinals Feb. 15, the Gators defended their home court with a 69-60 victory against Gulf. The two teams did not meet in the regular season, but went a combined 36-0 against Pasco County teams before their showdown.
Land O’ Lakes led 31-24 at halftime, but the Buccaneers (26-5) fought back and took a 41-40 lead with less than 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter. That is when Sweet hit the shot that energized the Gators.
Sweet took an outlet pass to the basket and hit a layup as time expired to put her squad back up by a point. Those two points started a 12-0 run, 10 from Sweet, which put the Gators up for good.
“I haven’t made a last second shot all season, so to do that at that time of the game it definitely sparked our team,” Sweet said. “It started us going up into the fourth quarter.”
Sweet outscored Gulf’s Nicole Adams, who scored her 2,000th career point early this season. Adams was held to 18. Sweet, who scored her 1,000th career point this season, poured in a team-high 32 while shooting 62 percent and adding four assists, three rebounds and two steals.
Della Penna helped her team build that first-half lead by hitting three 3-pointers.
“Julia, I love that girl,” Sweet said. “She definitely played her heart out. Her 3-pointers definitely helped our run. It got the crowd into it. … The whole team contributed to this win.”
Della Penna finished with 11 points. Senior Nicole Woodard had nine points and a team-high 12 rebounds. Senior Meagan Thurston put up eight points, pulled down five rebounds and added two blocks.
Next year, the program is likely to return starters Brown and Kendra Sheets.
“I’m really upset for them right now, but I’m hopeful we can do this again next year,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ll lose some very good players, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Wildcats finish just short of states
Coach Karim Nohra turned the Academy at the Lakes girls basketball team from a winless program to a regional finals squad, but the Wildcats season ended one game from states.
The academy (19-5) went 0-15 last year. Nohra was hired to run the program after guiding Wesley Chapel to back-to-back Class 4A regional finals. The story was the same in 1A this year for the veteran coach, but the Wildcats fell to Lake Worth Trinity Christian 59-30 at home Feb. 19.
“We were just outgunned,” Nohra said. “We couldn’t match their scoring or rebounding.”
The academy tied the score 14-14 with 5:50 left in the first half, but Trinity went on an 8-0 run going into the break to take the lead for good.
Andrea Mauger had a team-high eight points for the academy, while eighth-grader Marjorie Rivera added seven.
The Wildcats got through their regional semifinals contest Feb. 15 at Naples First Baptist 57-55. Mauger’s 20 points led all scorers, including two free throws with 11 seconds left to give her squad the winning margin. Rivera added 19 and Vanessa Vincent put up 13.
The season did not end with a state championship, but the academy’s record improved by 19 wins and the program won its first district title ever.
“This is the most satisfying season,” Nohra said. “They had no wins and have come so far.”