By Kyle LoJacono
The Academy at the Lakes girls basketball team fell in the Class 2A final four 67-46 to the eventual state champions Tallahassee FAMU on Feb. 21 at The Lakeland Center.
The loss ends the Wildcats’ (23-6) season two wins shy of the ultimate goal, but the trip to the state semifinals illustrates how far the program has come from one that went 0-15 two years ago.
“They competed really well and I’m proud of them,” said 20-year coach Karim Nohra.
Nohra came to the academy two years ago after two seasons at Wesley Chapel High. During his decades of coaching he’s been at final fours many times, but always as a spectator. He’d taken eight teams to regional finals before breaking through this year.
“I thanked them over and over for bringing me after 20 years to the final four and to this arena,” Nohra said. “Now I got to be on the floor, which was a great experience for me, but also for them.”
It was especially great for junior guard Andrea Mauger, who played for Nohra at Wesley Chapel as a freshman and the last two years at the academy.
“Some of my best friends played for Jefferson when they went to the final four my freshman year, and it was just, wow, you know I’d love to be here someday,” said Mauger, who had 18 points and six rebounds. “That’s been my dream and my goal since that moment I came here. To be not sitting in the stands and to walk in here, you know that’s a privilege. There’s only four teams in Class 2A that get to do that. You have to remember that in the back of our mind that we’re very privileged and very blessed to be in this position we’re in.”
Nohra’s gameplan was to slow the game down with a lot of passes in a half-court offense.
“I wanted a little more controlled environment; a little more controlled atmosphere for our team,” Nohra said. “Early on we weren’t looking to score as much. I told them if they have an open jumper yes, but let’s move the ball around a little, get a feel for the floor, get a feel for what they’re trying to do against us. It’s a big arena. You don’t always get to shoot in this type of environment. It generally throws shooters off.”
The Wildcats’ shots were off early, hitting one of 10 from the floor in the first quarter. FAMU (28-4) led 15-4 after the first 8 minutes and 34-21 at halftime, but academy kept it close enough for a late run.
The Wildcats cut FAMU’s lead to nine with just less than 6 minutes remaining thanks to a 17-2 run starting with 1:20 left in the third quarter. That was as close at it got as the Baby Rattlers scored 13 of the next 16 points.
“At single digits I thought we had a shot,” Nohra said. “Then they answered. …Yes, we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole, but to our girls’ credit they kept fighting.”
FAMU had the size advantage with 6-foot LaKaris Salter (34 points) and 5-foot-11 Jazmine Jones (24 points) playing down low against academy’s 5-foot-10 senior center Yvanessa Vincent, who had three points and five rebounds.
“Size advantage goes to them,” Nohra said. “Everybody was telling me about their vaunted press this and vaunted press that. How many times did we turn the ball over to them? Hardly any. … We just don’t have an answer for that size. Simple as that.”
Academy gave up only six turnovers, but the Wildcats’ press mustered three.
“To their credit they handle our press pretty decently,” Nohra said. “Most teams try to dribble through it. They passed through it and they have the strength to throw it long, which usually at the 2A level you don’t see.”
Academy senior guard Amelia Oliver, a Sunlake transfer, had a team-high 21 points while adding seven rebounds.
“I know if I wasn’t here I probably wouldn’t have got this far from any other school,” Oliver said. “I’m just blessed to be here with everybody.”
Also new to the team this season was Samantha Fernandez, who came from Oldsmar Christian. The senior point guard was forced to play harder than ever before for Nohra, but would make the move again if given the chance.
“We worked over and over on things until it became like second nature,” said Fernandez, who had12 points and six rebounds. “This experience has been amazing. I wouldn’t take anything back. I love all these girls.”