TAMPA — Sometimes during practice, Plant girls basketball coach Carrie Mahon makes her players hold onto towels, reaching high above their heads with both hands as they go through their drills. The purpose, forward Alexys Mathangani said, is to make sure the Panthers are defending efficiently, using their bodies to keep the other team away from the basket without drawing unnecessary fouls.
In Thursday's Jaguar Holiday Tournament semifinal against Academy of the Holy Names, the Panthers needed no props to do just that.
Plant dominated defensively from the start and used that momentum to fuel its offense, going on a 15-0 run in the first quarter to take a large lead it would never relinquish. The Panthers beat the Jaguars 63-40, advancing to Friday's tournament final against Carrollwood Day.
"Our press was working really well," Mahon said about her team's defensive effort. "We've got some good height this season, so when you've got someone Alexys' size on the front of the press, it just totally changes the way the other team can pass and get around her. She's just a really impressive part of that."
The Jaguars scored the first three points of the game on a field goal and a free throw, but the Panthers (11-0) scored the next 15, forcing Holy Names to take a time out to regroup. But against a stifling Plant defense, the Jaguars never really found their offensive footing.
In the meantime, the Plant offense took advantage of sharp shooting from deep — the Panthers made six 3-pointers — and strong drives to the basket from Nyla Jean, who led the team in scoring with 16 points.
The first semifinal of the night began a little bit differently, but for Carrollwood Day, the end result was the same. Against Countryside, the Patriots, who won 74-53, found themselves trapped in a stalemate, as the teams traded points and went into the second quarter tied at 16.
After the brief break, though, the CDS (14-1) defense came out even stronger than before, holding the Cougars to just seven second-quarter points, all of which were scored from the free-throw line.
"We didn't let go, we just kept up our energy and played as a team," said Tarriyonna Gary. "I'm extremely proud of our defensive effort today. We didn't give up. We played through every play, every possession, and we just did what we had to do to win."
The last time Plant and Carrollwood Day met was in last year's Jaguar Holiday Tournament, when Plant beat the Patriots 40-37 in overtime. Like that game, Friday's rematch could likely be a low-scoring, defensive battle.
If it is, Mathangani likes her team's chances.
"Kind of similar to today, we just have to work together and keep talking and just not give up after the first 30 seconds," she said. "We just have to really work together."