TAMPA — Last year was a breakthrough season for the Academy at the Lakes girls basketball team, which turned a first trip to the playoffs into a state Final Four appearance. But the Wildcats may have outdone that achievement Saturday.
AATL soundly defeated Plant 51-37 to win the championship of the Jaguar Holiday Classic at Academy of Holy Names.
"We're a 2A school, and so to beat an 8A team like we did, oh, absolutely it's our biggest win," AATL coach Karim Nohra said.
The Wildcats, now 15-0, were led by 6-foot-2 senior Tatiana Manuel. Not only did she score 17 points and grab 11 rebounds, she shut down Plant inside with nine blocks and other shot alterations.
With the Wildcats down to six players — "our bench is out of town" Nohra said — Plant tried to force the issue but fell short.
"Our big concern was foul trouble," Manuel said. "They tried to come inside on me right from the start. But I guess they got the hint after I got a few balls out of there."
Manuel, Andrea Mauger (14 points) and Taylor Polasky played all 32 minutes while tournament MVP Timecia Cohen only sat for a brief spell. Yet AATL played man-to-man defense and put a halfcourt press on the Panthers (12-5).
That harried Plant, which has been without starting guards Christina Tamargo and Caroline Carey. Coach Carrie Mahon likened the season-ending injuries, both coming Dec. 17, to "losing our quarterback and our running back in a span of 3 1/2 minutes."
It showed Saturday as Plant turned it over 22 times, nine in the first quarter as AATL went up 12-5. Plant rallied to 15-all, but the Wildcats scored the final six points of the half to start a game-breaking 17-0 run.
"Of course we got tired but, you got to push through it if you want to win," Cohen said.
Madelyn Carey led Plant with 15 points and Ray Brown had 16 rebounds.
In the third-place game, Steinbrenner beat host Academy of the Holy Names 44-30 as Bailey Hooker scored 14.