By Jeff Odom and Don Trello
Tatiana Manuel could feel the nerves building on the hour-long trip to Winter Garden Foundation Academy for the Class 2A regional finals Feb. 16.
The Academy at the Lakes senior center, who transferred from Brooks-DeBartolo this season, was feeling the pressure of being one win away from the final four.
She told herself not to be intimidated.
Manuel finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks to help lead the Wildcats (25-2) to a 69-33 win over the Lions (8-15), earning her squad consecutive trips to the state semifinals.
“I was a little nervous, but I don’t think no team out there has worked as hard as us to get to this point,” Manuel said. “Whether it’s games, practice or anything, we did it. … I’ve never been here before, and I’m just so speechless right now.”
Wildcats third-year coach Karim Nohra said he’s proud of his team’s performance, but felt there were too many mistakes.
“It feels awesome and I’m very, very happy for my seniors; they deserve to go back,” Nohra said. “We didn’t play a great game, but we did enough in order to get the win and get out of here.”
The academy led by 27 at the half thanks to a 12-1 spurt in the second quarter but had to hold off the Lions’ surging offense after the break.
Nohra said his team lost its composure coming out of halftime, which it can’t afford.
“We’ll have to get to work on that,” Nohra said.
The Wildcats regained their dominance in the fourth as senior point guard Timecia Cohen (nine points, 13 assists), Manuel and the bench pitched in to end the game on a 13-4 run with a running clock.
Senior forward Alex Gittens, who is normally a defensive specialist, added 17 points.
“Alex was limited in her skill when I got here,” Nohra said. “I quickly found out she sticks like glue to anybody assigned to her. You can’t out-run or out-fatigue her. I’ve never seen her say she was tired.”
The academy advanced to their third straight regional finals with a resounding 70-21 win Feb. 12 over previously undefeated Winter Haven All Saints’ Academy (21-1).
“I told the girls it would be really tight, or we would blow them away,” Nohra said. “I didn’t know what would happen. We had a lot of effort and intensity and turned in an A-plus performance.”
Manuel was 9-of-11 from the field en route to a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds.
“I really felt nervous before the game; I was very pressured,” Manuel said. “Coach told me he wanted me to do everything.”
Manuel met Nohra’s expectations.
“This is brand new territory for her,” Nohra said. “She scored 655 points in three years before coming here. “She has 385 (through the semis) this season. I told her to use that 6-2 frame. I demanded she score.”
Nohra’s demand that Manuel score more points is just one of many high expectations he has for his team.
“Everybody on this team has the green light to shoot,” said Nohra, who has been coaching girls basketball for 23 years. “Everybody steps up into their role.”
Academy athletic director and boys basketball coach Tom Haslam jumped at the chance to hire Nohra after his time at Wesley Chapel High ended.
“I’ve known him going back to the Catholic youth league where we coached against each other,” Haslam said. “Anytime we need a coach in any sport we try to find the best coach available. … Karim has a brilliant mind, and his girls work hard. He has won everywhere he’s coached. It was a no-brainer hiring him.”
Nohra’s fiercely competitive coaching style and bench demeanor can raise the eyebrows of casual fans and opposing coaches, but there is method to his approach.
“I like to create orchestrated chaos,” Nohra said. “It’s an extremely aggressive style of play. Nobody ever mentions me being too rough on the girls. The girls know whatever I do or say is for the benefit of the team.”
Haslam said Nohra’s intense coaching style is accepted and respected by players and parents.
“We haven’t had one girl quit since Karim has been here,” Haslam said. “His girls love him and will run through a wall for him, and the parents have been really complimentary. … I think people who come to a game and watch him for 10 minutes don’t understand him. I’ve known him 30 years, and he’s a good man.”
The academy plays Hollywood Sheridan Hills Christian Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. at the Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime St., in the state semifinal. A victory would match the Wildcats against the winner of Boca Raton Grandview Prep/Tallahassee FAMU for the 2A state championship Feb. 20 at 8 p.m.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.