Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
The Steinbrenner girls basketball team’s worst nightmare came true with less than 5 minutes to play in the third quarter at Class 7A-District 9 rival Wiregrass Ranch on Jan. 6.
Freshman center Rachel Briere, who averages 11.1 points per game, yelled out in pain as she lay on the court holding her left knee. That’s when Warriors coach J.R. Allen turned to his bench and gestured for senior center Rebecca Cohen to go in.
“After Rachel went down, coach told me ‘we need you’ and everyday he told me I needed to be physical, but really it’s for the team and I’m a senior so I stepped it up,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s eight points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals gave the Warriors the late push needed to beat the Bulls 41-32 in a key district meeting.
For Allen, it was a moment 16 games in the making as he said Cohen, who scored six of her eight points in the fourth, got over a psychological hump that has plagued her all year.
“She has the physical gift, she knows that, I know that, but it’s all been a mental block for her, and for whatever reason she was able to shake that off,” Allen said. He then added, “It was huge and if she didn’t I feel like maybe the game goes the other way, and we don’t get it done because everything she did when she came in was a positive.”
The Warriors (14-2) found themselves locked in a tight game against Wiregrass Ranch (13-6) as shots didn’t fall for either team in the first half. Steinbrenner led 17-15 at the break thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by senior guard Alexis Wright.
“You talk about poor shooting, I wanted to joke and ask if they put any lids on the rim before the first half because no shots were going in,” Allen said.
The Warriors defense picked up the offense, forcing the Bulls to settle for outside shots.
“We kind of communicated that the defense had to pick up (with the lack of offense), and it did tremendously,” Allen said.
In the second quarter, Steinbrenner junior guard/forward Baylee Hooker, who injured her head during a collision the day before in practice, began to set the pace offensively. She finished with a team-high 18 points.
“I had to push through it,” said Hooker of her injury. “I had to come out with the mindset that it wasn’t there and it wasn’t a big factor because the adrenaline in the game made it go away.”
In the second half, the Bulls kept chiseling away at the Warriors lead, which got as small as five before Briere’s injury. Allen said he’s not going to speculate on the extent of the injury, but did say Briere will have an MRI to check for any major damage.
In the fourth quarter, the Bulls kept it close as senior guard Kelly McCaffrey hit a pair of 3-pointers to keep Wiregrass Ranch within five late, but the Warriors defense stifled the comeback.
Bulls coach John Gant said while the loss hurts, he was glad to see his team maturing.
“We grew up a bit tonight,” Gant said. “I was really pleased with our effort on defense and we adjusted well on their pressure. We just didn’t play well on offense tonight, which was our Achilles heel. That’s why we didn’t win the game.”
On the boys side, Wiregrass Ranch got revenge against Steinbrenner, defeating the Warriors 91-69 to leap back into the district title conversation.
In the first meeting between the district opponents, Steinbrenner (8-5) won a shootout over the Bulls (7-7) at home 108-101.
Wiregrass Ranch adjusted from that game, and coach Jeremy Calzone said it was all about keeping the Warriors off the scoreboard.
“We’ve had trouble with our defense all year and I feel like we finally came together as a team,” Calzone said. “Just to see our guys come out and commit to playing defense, it was awesome.”
Steinbrenner coach Steve Williams said the Bulls adjustments made from then to now made a huge difference.
“I thought that we were just outplayed tonight,” Williams said. “It was a great ball game when we played them in our place, it went down to the wire, but tonight we just couldn’t make the shots like we did and they did a good job.”
Junior forward Rico Kerney led the Bulls with 36 points and junior shooting guard Drake Wagner led the Warriors with 14.