GULFPORT — The question: when they came out in man-to-man to start the second half, what were you thinking?
The answer: Could you repeat the question?
Truth was, Boca Ciega High’s Tamara Taylor didn’t really have an answer, because she hadn’t noticed.
If there’s a zone, she breaks it.
If there’s a defender on her, she shakes her.
If there are two defenders on her, she drives and dishes.
Pretty simple, really.
The Pirates, winners of 29 of 30 girls basketball games, didn’t get to Wednesday’s Class 5A state semifinal against Pensacola Pine Forest by using a complicated formula.
Instead, it’s been pretty simple, and awfully fun to watch: shoot and play defense.
“Their system might not be as deep or as complicated as someone might think it should be,” said Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt, “but you can’t argue with the success.”
In the past three seasons, that success includes an 84-9 record and three straight visits to the state semis.
This is the most unlikely of those teams. After losing all-state guard Tory Stephens, center Missy Schmidt and other senior contributors to graduation, and opening the season with three freshmen in the starting lineup, coach Will White thought he was rebuilding, not reloading.
“I didn’t expect this,” he said. “I thought we’d have a hard time, especially having to win at Clearwater and then beat Sickles and (All-American) Amber Henson. I was hoping we’d make the sweet 16 and keep building for the future.”
But one thing White seems to have a knack for is getting his team ready for the postseason, and the wins have been piling up.
Heading into the semifinals last year, the Pirates were riding a 19-game win streak. This year, it’s 22, thanks again to a frenetic, free-flowing offense that always seems to produce points at the perfect time, from under the hoop or 30 feet away.
“People say it’s street ball, but really, it’s organized street ball,” White said. “We’ve tried to be more like halfcourt and organized, but we’ve always had better luck just letting the kids play. When you have the talent, you have to play to your strengths.”
That talent has most often been beyond the 3-point arc, where the Pirates have earned the reputation of being a group of undisciplined merry marksmen.
But this season, a stingy underrated defense, a trio of better-than-advertised freshman starters and the improvement in the all-around games of stars Taylor and Latavia Dempsey have transformed the Pirates into something more.
• • •
Bogie got to its first final four by making 17 3-pointers in the 2008 region championship. Last year, the Pirates made 10 to beat Jefferson and advance again.
Saturday, they only needed six to beat Sickles.
But don’t think for a second they will hesitate to shoot if left open.
“Does it mean we take some bad shots? Sure. Sometimes we take some really bad shots,” White said.
“But I want confident players that trust their instincts. Tamara and Latavia always have the green light.”
So White is able to shrug off moments like Saturday, when Taylor pulled up and launched a 25-footer that missed badly, because they are often followed by his star junior scoring 18 of her team’s next 20 points, with four 3-pointers, to build a 33-20 lead.
When that lead started to slip away, however, it was two drives by Dempsey that stemmed one Gryphons rally, perfect free-throw shooting that stopped another and a pair of inside baskets by Taylor and freshman Destiny Brown that finally quieted Sickles for good.
In the second half, Bogie didn’t make a hoop from farther out than 12 feet in sealing the win.
The Lakeland Center is rarely kind to teams that like to shoot 3s. The bigger arena creates enough depth-perception issues that even the best shooting teams struggle.
It was a major factor the past two seasons in Bogie’s state losses. But Dempsey says the arena is no longer a concern.
“We know what to expect now, what we’re coming to shoot on,” she said. “This is a good team. And we aren’t just a team that only shoots 3s.”
If there’s a zone, they’ll try and break it.
A defender, they’ll try to shake her.
Two, and they’ll look for the open teammate.
Pretty simple, really.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All games at the Lakeland Center. Admission is $9 per session; parking $7 per day.
5A: Boca Ciega vs. Pensacola Pine Forest, 7 p.m. Wednesday
4A: Jefferson vs. Pensacola, 11:30 a.m. Friday
3A: Tampa Catholic vs. Tallahassee Rickards, 2:30 p.m. Wednesday
On the Web: We’ll be blogging live from games involving our local teams at tampabay.com/