By Kyle LoJacono
Academy at the Lakes girls basketball coach Karim Nohra started coaching before any of his players were born.
The 20-year veteran has won more than 400 games and his teams have won nine district championships, but his Wildcats (23-5) helped him do something completely new on Feb. 18.
The academy defeated Winter Garden Foundation Academy (9-12) 64-28 in the Class 2A regional finals, sending Nohra and the Wildcats to their first final four.
“This feels much better than the journeys I’ve had before,” Nohra said. “I’d rather do this than what I did the past eight times I’ve been here at this position. … It feels pretty darn good to go dancing.”
During his last 10 years coaching Nohra has guided teams to nine regional finals, including the last four straight starting at Wesley Chapel High from 2008-10 and the last two seasons at the academy.
Junior forward Andrea Mauger has been coached by Nohra the last three years and was happy to give him the special gift.
“It’s amazing because he’s done so much to make me a better player, so to be able to give him something back feels great,” said Mauger, who had 13 points. “My dream came true; the team’s dream came true.”
The regional championship is also the school’s first in any sport.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said senior guard Amelia Oliver. “I’m just so excited. I’m glad to be playing with this team.”
The Wildcats had an off shooting night, going 4-30 from 3-point land. They led 19-16 after the first quarter, but their defense began to suffocate Foundation after that. The academy allowed only 12 points in the final 24 minutes and six after halftime.
Senior point guard Samantha Fernandez’s quickness led the Wildcats’ press defense, producing 14 steals while adding 10 rebounds.
“I expected to come out and jump on them quick,” Fernandez said. “That was our intention, and we did a great job of that. All of us played well defensively.”
Fernandez also racked up 15 points and 11 assists — a quadruple double.
“Her performance is what we needed out of her tonight,” Mauger said. “She’s fast and quick. When she plays smart she’s unstoppable.”
Oliver had a team-high 22 points despite fighting the flu. The Wildcats also got 14 points, 11 rebounds and six steals from Vanessa Vincent. Alexis Holler posted six steals and four rebounds.
The academy blew past its regional semifinals contest on Feb. 14 at Avon Park Walker Memorial (20-1), winning 85-37.
Mauger had a game-high 27 points. Oliver added 20 points, while Fernandez and Vincent added 14 and 12, respectively.
The Wildcats play Tallahassee Florida A&M in the state semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 2:30 p.m. at The Lakeland Center, 701 West Lime St. in Lakeland. A victory sends them to the championship game on Feb. 22 at 2:30 p.m. against the winner of the other semis between Boca Raton Grandview Prep and Hollywood Christian. Parking is $7, while admission is $10.