TAMPA — When Carrollwood Day advanced to the Class 3A state tournament in Lakeland last season, it was a bit of a surprise. After all, the Patriots had very little girls basketball history and had never advanced to the final four before. Also, the entire starting lineup consisted of freshmen.
With every starter and most key reserves back, and with the addition of 6-foot-2 freshman forward Aryana Dizon, it was expected the Patriots would easily return to Lakeland. They did get back — but it was far from easy.
With a short-handed lineup due to illness and injury, the Patriots lost in the Class 4A, District 4 final to Seffner Christian. That meant their two region games to get to state would be on the road. First up was Oviedo Master's Academy. Carrollwood Day needed overtime before leaving with a 76-66 win.
Then came the rematch against Seffner Christian. The rubber match went to the Patriots, who had to work hard for a 66-59 win over their rivals.
Sophomores C.C. Mays and Tarriyonna Gary were hampered by ankle injuries in the district final, and Gary didn't play at all. Also, a few other players were slowed by the flu.
Second-year coach Karim Nohra said the team is completely healthy heading into the semifinal against Gainesville P.K. Yonge. But he admitted they could be playing better.
"They've gotten better than last year but not quite where I'd like them to be considering they've been in the system two years," Nohra said. "They tend to forget things once in a while. If I was to give them a written test about what to do, they would all get 100 percent. But when they get on the court they haven't quite connected the dots."
That's not to say the Patriots aren't a handful for opponents. They play a fast-break style that is meant to wear teams out. And they play that style with three 6-footers.
Tiasia McMillan, a 6-foot forward, averages 14 points and 6.8 rebounds. Weeyah McGilll, a 6-foot-2 center, gets 12.6 points and a team-high 9.7 rebounds. Mays also is in the double-digit club with 10.1 points per game. And Dizon has chipped in 7.2 points coming off the bench.
Then there is Gary. She is the sharpshooter who keeps defenses honest. She leads the team with 15 points per game and was especially sharp in regionals. She had 29 points in the overtime win over Master's Academy despite the ankle issues.
"She came to me at halftime, grabbed my shirt and literally said, 'Don't you take me out in the second half,' " Nohra said.
She added 25 points in the win over Seffner Christian.
"I feel a lot better now," Gary said. "I just know that I have to play harder than I was before."
"When she's in the zone like that, you just have to give her the ball," Mays added.
The Patriots have won 27 games this season and are at full strength for Wednesday's semifinal. They have made this trip before, getting to the final before losing to Miami Country Day. Country Day also bumped up to Class 4A this season, so there could be a rematch.
Mays believes the team is ready.
"Last year it was all new to us so we were all nervous," she said. "This year we're coming strictly for business. We know that we are ready. We're ready for any challenge."
Nohra doesn't quite share that belief
"I'm asking them to think more than I did last year," he said. "Thinking causes you to slow down. But I'm telling them to go, go, go. I want them to think fast. That hasn't kicked in."
Class 4A state semifinal
Who: Carrollwood Day (27-3) vs. Gainesville P.K. Yonge (20-7)
When/where: 10 a.m. Wednesday; RP Funding Center, Lakeland
Admission: $10 in advance, $13 at the gate
Know the opponent: The Blue Wave plays in a three-team district and as the top seed was automatically in the region tournament. They have not been challenged in three postseason games so far. Freshman Mya Mcgraw is 6 feet 2 and the only double-digit scorer at 12.3 points per game. She also average 7.2 rebounds and clogs up the middle. Junior Raquel Cassidy is also a six-footer who gets 9.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. P.K. Yonge made it to the Class 4A region final last year.