TAMPA — With this being his first season, Jefferson coach Jim Baxter didn't know how big of a rivalry Plant-Jefferson is. According to Baxter, supporters always tell him they hope his Dragons win. But Thursday, it seemed like there were more than normal.
"Everyone was coming up to me saying that we had to beat Plant," Baxter said.
But if the cries of "Beat Plant" weren't enough to show Baxter how important the battle between the two south Tampa juggernauts is, the atmosphere of the actual game sealed the deal.
And Baxter's Dragons won, 59-54 in front of a pumped-up home crowd.
Jefferson (17-1) led 19-8 after the first quarter and 34-21 at halftime behind a combined 20 points by juniors Chantrell Frazier and Shayla Wilson. Junior Kelly Brennan kept the Panthers (12-4) within reach, scoring 15 of her game-high 23 during the half.
And despite being down double digits for most of the first half, Plant didn't panic. It adjusted.
The Panthers switched to a zone and packed it in, forcing the Dragons to try to beat them from the perimeter. The strategy paid off. With the driving and passing lanes clogged, Jefferson grew impatient on offense and began to settle for long jump shots.
Meanwhile, Plant's offense began to heat up. It outscored Jefferson 17-9 in the third to cut its deficit to five.
Plant pulled to within 52-50 with just more than three minutes remaining. But that's as close as Plant got. Jefferson scored the next five, capped by a 3-point play by Hema Gude.
Plant coach Carrie Mahon said she believes her team learned a great deal in facing a tough opponent .
"I would love to play 10 more games like this one where you may not win but your team is pushed to the limit," she said. "You learn more about your team through these types of games than you do with lopsided wins."