The excitement is growing in girls basketball circles for Round 3: Gulf vs. Wesley Chapel. Remember, Wildcats coach Karim Nohra declared his girls had won Round 2 after a 47-42 win Jan. 16. Gulf took the first round 47-37 on Dec. 3. Even more exciting, there could be a Round 4 in the second round of the playoffs. But first, both teams must reach the district tournament final. Anything less than a Buccaneers-Wildcats final in Class 4A, District 7 would be an upset, considering both teams swept district foes. Then again, that's why the games are played. With that, here are the five teams we believe have the best shot at advancing to the playoffs:
Wesley Chapel (18-2)
The Wildcats had a 12-game winning streak snapped by Academy of the Holy Names on a night leading scorer Shantel Houston was out of town on a recruiting trip. Since then, Wesley Chapel has won five straight and claimed the 4A-7 top seed. And Houston is back in the lineup. Nohra is a demanding coach with sharp attention to detail. His knowledge of the game and commanding style has guided the Wildcats to a 68-6 overall record in two seasons, including last year's Class 5A region final berth.
The Buccaneers have arguably the most talented roster on the North Suncoast. It begins with leading scorer Nicole Adams, a talented shooter with good range and a smooth stroke. She averages 20.3 points per game, and when she's on, she's unstoppable. She has scored 20 or more points in her past four games. She had a season-high 31 in the 100-2 win over Anclote. There's also Coppin State signee Kianna Mills (9.5 ppg, 8.2 rebounds per game). Gulf tested itself with a tough schedule that included wins vs. Osceola, Countryside, Spoto and Satellite. But there were a pair of losses to Tampa Catholic and defeats at Boca Ciega and Wesley Chapel.
The Bears have won nine of their past 10, including Wednesday's 65-34 win against Hudson. They are led by junior Raqurra Ishmar (20.3 ppg), McKenzie Burns (14.6 ppg) and Tikiera Relaford (10.3 ppg). Clearly the biggest win of the season was a 58-39 victory over Nature Coast; Central became the first Hernando County team to defeat the Sharks. That win spawned confidence and sparked 10 wins in 12 games.
Wiregrass Ranch (15-6)
The Bulls are coming off a 64-48 loss to St. Petersburg Catholic and have won four of five. Bulls coach Greg Finkel said the deep bench he predicted to begin the season with has paid off, though it has not been a crutch. Wiregrass' starting five have been solid, including leading scorer Kelly McCaffrey (14.3 ppg). She is joined by Regan Knapik (10.2 ppg) and Kayla Deloach (11.3 ppg). Injurywise, there are concerns about Amie Donohue (ankle). Finkel said she will continue to play but is limited. The Bulls have the No. 1 seed in 4A-8 and appear to have an easy path to the final, where they could face Nature Coast. The Bulls beat the Sharks 59-45 on Jan. 12.
Nature Coast (15-7)
Since Dec. 29, the Sharks have lost five of nine games, including a three-game gantlet of Plant, Holy Names and Gulf — all on the road. Losses to Wiregrass and Wesley Chapel leave many wondering if Nature Coast can pull together in time to earn a playoff berth? Picking up leading scorer Jen Marshall certainly boosted offensive output, but it's unclear how it affected on-court chemistry. Marshall (13.8 ppg) initially had decided not to play basketball in favor of softball. Alexis Helfand (11.5 ppg) and Alyssa Joens (10.8 ppg) are another key pair for the Sharks.
District tournament schedules
5A-7 at Ocala West Port
Friday: Central vs. Ocala Forest, 6; Ocala West Port vs. Springstead, 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7
4A-8 at Wiregrass Ranch
Monday: Sunlake (8) vs. Zephyrhills (9), 7; Tuesday: Land O'Lakes (4) vs. Citrus (5), 6; Wiregrass Ranch (1) vs. Sunlake/Zephyrhills winner, 7:30; Wednesday: Lecanto (3) vs. Hernando (6), 6; Nature Coast (2) vs. River Ridge (7), 7:30; Friday: Nature Coast/River Ridge winner vs. Lecanto/Hernando winner, 6; Wiregrass Ranch/Sunlake-Zephyrhills winner vs. Land O'Lakes/Citrus winner, 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7
4A-7 at Gulf
Wednesday: Mitchell (4) vs. Ridgewood (5), 6; Hudson (3) vs. Pasco (6), 7:45; Friday: Wesley Chapel (1) vs. Mitchell/Ridgewood winner, 6; Gulf (2) vs. Hudson/Pasco winner, 7:45; Saturday: Final, 7
2A-10 at Indian Rocks Christian
Friday: Tampa Prep (2) vs. Calvary (3), 6; Indian Rocks Christian (1) vs. Bishop McLaughlin (4), 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7
A-9 at Keswick Christian
Tuesday: Tampa Bay Christian (4) vs. Canterbury (5), 6; Cambridge (3) vs. Academy at the Lakes (6), 7:30; Thursday: Lakeside (2) vs. Cambridge/AATL winner, 6; Keswick (1) vs. Tampa Bay Chr./Canterbury winner, 7:30; Friday: Final, 7
A-8 at Citrus Park Christian
Tuesday: Citrus Park Christian (4) vs. Bayshore Christian (5), 6; Thursday: Seffner Christian (2) vs. Hernando Christian (3), 5; Brandenton Christian (1) vs. Citrus Park Chr./Bayshore Chr. winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7