LAKELAND — Just like they had been all season, young players were Academy at the Lakes’ greatest assets when it faced Sarasota Christian in Tuesday’s Class 2A state semifinal.
But in the biggest game of the Wildcats’ season to date, coach Karim Nohra admits, inexperience also dragged them down. And ultimately, the weaknesses of youth— turnovers and defensive lapses — outweighed the strengths.
Sarasota Christian (23-7) slowed AATL’s signature fast-paced style, and the young Wildcats, who couldn’t adjust, fell 68-59.
Freshman forward Imani Thomas led the Wildcats (20-6) with 24 points, and eighth-graders Taylor Polasky and Audra Leipold added 11 and eight, respectively. While the Wildcats proved at times they could hold their own against a more veteran Blazers squad, on defense, Nohra said, evidence of their youth was hard to miss.
“You can see they weren’t anticipating where the next pass was going,” he said. “If you’ve played a long time and you’ve been in my system, you would know exactly where the next pass is going and you’d be there before it got there.”
The game was close from the start, and the Blazers and Wildcats traded the lead six times in the first quarter, the last when Lauren Wells sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give AATL a 16-15 lead going into the second.
As the game went on, the Wildcats had a tougher time stopping Sarasota Christian, which shot 46 percent from the floor in the first half. Cheyenne Miller, who came in averaging fewer than six points per contest, scored 13 of her 17 points before the break.
Miller was hot, but Nohra knew his team’s success was contingent upon shutting down someone else.
Sarasota Christian point guard McKenzie Lantz, who led the Blazers with 21 points, ran the floor and facilitated her team’s strong offensive presence. Nohra said the goal was to take her out of the game.
He soon discovered that she wasn’t going anywhere.
“She is the engine that makes that team go,” Nohra said. “The hope was to shut her down a little bit, slow her down, make other girls bring the ball up, but that didn’t materialize for us.”
With just 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Sarasota Christian took a 12-point lead. For an AATL team playing a half-court offense to which it wasn’t accustomed, it was a lead it couldn’t surmount.
But in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats sure did try. AATL came within five points twice in the final minute of play. Both times, however, the Blazers — who made 13 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter — widened the gap again at the stripe.
For AATL, which made its third straight final four appearance, the season ended Tuesday. But after the game, the Wildcats didn’t appear to be overcome with regret.
Youth might be their disadvantage now. But to Polasky, it only gives them hope for the future.
“Oh, we’re going to be back,” she said, “There’s no doubt about that.”