By Don Trello
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Academy at the Lakes girls basketball coach Karim Nohra knows his team will face a challenge when hosting undefeated Winter Haven All Saints’ Academy in a Class 2A regional semifinals Feb. 12 at 7 p.m.
The Wildcats (23-2) defeated Avon Park Walker Memorial (23-2) 66-29 on Feb. 7 to set up the matchup.
“I’ve scouted them, and they have two 6-footers in the lineup,” Nohra said. “You have to give (All Saints) respect.”
Academy advanced to the 2A final four last year, losing in the state semifinals to eventual champion Florida A & M University. The Wildcats lost four starters from that squad, and third-year academy coach Nohra said his players are still rounding into form.
“Last year’s team was a better shooting team; defensively we are about the same,” Nohra said. “We are better off depthwise this year.”
Seniors Tatiana Manuel, Andrea Mauger and Timecia Cohen, who each scored in double figures against Walker Memorial, are the team leaders.
It is the first time the 6-foot-2 Manuel has played in the postseason after transferring from Brooks-DeBartolo this season.
“I actually thought I’d never make it this far,” Manual said. “I wasn’t always the best player. I played varsity at Blake in the ninth grade, and I realized I needed to work harder.”
Manual is averaging a team-high 8.9 rebounds and 6.0 blocks while scoring 14.5.
“I love playing defense, and I’m a pretty good shot blocker and rebounder,” she said. “I look at myself as kind of an all-around player. I’m kind of a perfectionist.”
Mauger said getting Manuel this year was like a “sigh of relief” in the post.
“She blocks a lot of shots and is a tremendous all-around player,” Mauger said.
Manual’s inside game is complemented by Mauger, who leads the team with 38 3-pointers and 18.6 points per game.
“My strongest point is that I’m versatile,” Mauger said. “I can shoot, grab rebounds and take it to the hole.”
Cohen, who missed last season with a torn ACL in her right knee, leads the team with more than 300 steals and 170-plus assists while averaging 13.0 points.
“This is my first season at point guard,” Cohen said. “Seeing the floor is the hardest part. You have to read the defense and make sure the offense goes like it’s supposed to go.”
The Wildcats play swarming, full-court, pressure defense and have held opponents to around 23 points per game.
“You have to be mentally tough to handle it,” Mauger said about the demanding Academy defense. “We start running in September every day, miles and miles, and every week it goes up.”
Nohra was effusive in his praise of Mauger, who transferred from Wesley Chapel her sophomore year.
“Andrea has been with me all four years,” said Nohra, who previously coached at Wesley Chapel. “I actually followed her from Wesley Chapel. She’s absolutely grown as a player. … Andrea is a workaholic and wants to get better. She’s the captain and responsible for the offense and defense on the floor. She brings intrinsics to the table, and is totally the brightest girl.”
Freshmen Janice Cassanello and Luz Santiago round out the Academy starting lineup, and seventh-grader Taylor Polasky has played in all but one game, including 10 starts.
“Santiago just came back from breaking her hand Dec. 27,” Nohra said. “Taylor started for her and averaged 6.0 points a game.”
Nohra left little doubt he is a demanding coach that seeks Bobby Knight-like perfection from his team when he vacated the bench along with Manual, Mauger and Cohen and went to the locker room with one minute left in the Walker Memorial game.
“We didn’t play very well,” he explained about leaving an assistant in charge. “Our press wasn’t up to my standards. I wanted to talk with the Big Three. It was important for me to give them a message.”