LAKELAND — After Academy at the Lakes rallied from 23 down in the third quarter to make it a nine-point game with six minutes left, Florida A&M High pulled ahead the same way it had all game.
Forward LaKaris Salter hit back-to-back shots and blocked another to end the Wildcats’ season with a 67-46 loss in Tuesday’s Class 2A state semifinal at the Lakeland Center.
“I thought we had a fighting chance,” Wildcats coach Karim Nohra said. “They took it away from us.”
AATL (23-6) needed a late comeback after a rough start. FAMU (26-4) used its press to forced six first-quarter turnovers.
The Wildcats hurt themselves as they struggled to find their shot in the biggest gym and largest stage the school had ever seen. It was the first trip to state in Nohra’s 20-year career and the first for a program that went winless two years ago.
“We’ve got kids who have never seen this size of gym,” Nohra said.
AATL also struggled to adjust to the size of FAMU. Salter, a 6-foot sophomore, scored 15 of her game-high 30 points in the first half to push the lead. The Rattlers’ 5-foot-11 eighth-grader, Jazmine Jones, added 20 points and nine rebounds.
“We didn’t have an answer for that size,” Nohra said. “Simple as that.”
Salter opened the second half with a putback and one of her game-high 16 rebounds to start a fast break. AATL’s deficit extended to 23 with two minutes left in the third quarter before the Wildcats made a run.
Senior Amelia Oliver hit a 3 and a runner. Samantha Fernandez followed with a pull-up jumper and two free throws. A trey and two jumpers by Andrea Mauger completed a 16-2 run that made it a 50-41 game with 6:04 left.
But Salter responded immediately. She drained a 3 and made a bucket down low to stop AATL’s momentum and propel the Rattlers to the state title game for the fourth time since 2002. FAMU faces Hollywood Christian, which edged Grandview Prep 49-47.
Mauger finished with 16 points and six rebounds. Oliver added 15 points and a team-high seven boards, while Fernandez chipped in 12 points and six rebounds.
When the tears and hugs ended, the Wildcats said they were disappointed their run ended two victories too soon but excited at the progress the program has made so quickly.
“It’s just an amazing experience to play on that floor,” Mauger said. “We gave it our all. That’s all we can ask for.”