By Jeff Odom
The Academy at the Lakes girls basketball team proved once again that size does not matter.
The Wildcats (15-0) had only six players on the roster for the final of the Jaguar Holiday Classic because of vacations, illnesses and injuries, but the little Class 2A squad made a lot of noise by dominating Class 8A Plant 51-37 Dec. 29 to take home the tournament title at the Academy of the Holy Names.
It’s a long way from where they were just three years ago when they finished 0-15.
Senior point guard Timecia Cohen, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, called the win one of the best she’s ever been a part of.
“We were (surprised),” Cohen said. “We only had six players, so we really had to play smart. We knew we had to beat (Plant) to make a name for ourselves, because we’re such a small school and we did it.”
The academy used an aggressive full-court press and man-to-man defense the entire night, forcing the Panthers (12-5) into numerous mistakes.
Not only did the Wildcats have the smallest roster at the event, but junior Monique Montoute was their only bench player, despite having never played basketball before the tournament. Academy coach Karim Nohra wasn’t concerned with his players tiring down because of how conditioned his players are from practice.
“The first 30 minutes is pretty much up and down,” Nohra said of their practices. “We don’t slow down. They go from one drill to the next to the next. It’s all full-court type stuff, and sometimes if they’re dogging it, boom, let’s run some suicides. … Conditioning (against Plant) was not a factor.”
After taking a 21-15 halftime lead, the academy continued to pound Plant in the third quarter, firing off a 17-0 run while not allowing the Panthers to score a basket for the first six minutes and 20 seconds.
Plant’s missed layups, coupled with another 10-2 run in the fourth, which included a long 3-pointer from Andrea Mauger (14 points) and a big block by Tatiana Manuel on a layup attempt by Madelyn Carey, put the game away.
Manuel (17 points, 11 rebounds) said keeping the tempo up on both sides of the ball after leading for most of the first half was a must to avoid a letdown.
“We got pretty tired; he had to call a few timeouts, but we kept up the intensity,” said Manuel, a senior center. “We knew it was going to be a difficult game coming in here, and we really just had to keep playing.”
Nohra stopped short of calling it a statement win for the program, but he said it was special to see his squad step up against a much larger school.
“I don’t make statements; I make my team play to the level I want and whoever’s in the way,” Nohra said. “We got to take them down. That’s what we do. … We’ve come to this tournament many times and we’ve never won. So, is this a big win? Absolutely. We’re a 2A school taking down an 8A school. That’s pretty awesome for us.”
In the third-place game, Steinbrenner defeated Holy Names 44-30 behind Bailey Hooker’s double-double (14 points, 14 rebounds) and Taylor Thigpen’s 11 points.
The Warriors (16-4), who played the tournament without their second-leading scorer Rachel Briere because of a right knee injury, struggled on offense in the semifinals against Plant, losing 46-43.
Steinbrenner shot 14-of-44 from the field and collapsed with a dismal one-point second quarter.
Fourth-year coach JR Allen said the loss was a reality check.
“We’re not in a good place right now,” Allen said. “(Our schedule has) been relatively easy to this point, and we’re struggling whenever we get challenged, and it’s hard to convince these girls we can get better. … You could clearly see it meant more to Plant to win.”
Wiregrass Ranch finished fourth, going 1-2 at the event.
The Bulls (11-8) defeated St. Petersburg Catholic in the second round, but were dealt losses from the academy in the first round and Braden River in the consolation game.
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