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Cook has recipe for blocks

The few times opponents dare to enter the lane against Gulf's Tiara Cook, they are greeted by long arms that usually swat their shots into orbit.

In fact, Cook has become so much of a shot- blocking force, opposing playmakers often become passive whenever she is near.

"I guess opponents are afraid of me," Cook said. "I would be if I was coming up against me. I don't know how it explain it. Maybe it's just my arms, maybe it's my height. But it's something that makes opponents intimidated.

"I'm not scared of myself. But I can tell others are when I'm playing. I've even had girls come up and tell me that they would just give me the ball if they ever saw me on the court."

The 6-foot junior center seems like a natural shot-blocker. Just look at her long arms. She has used them to average three blocks a game in her three years as a Buccaneer.

But Cook isn't so much a hulking presence in the middle as a sleek, out-of-nowhere ball hawk. She likes to play deep under the basket, emerging just when an opponent thinks she has an open look.

Then _ swat! _ she does her thing. With her agility, she alters drives to the basket that other centers could never reach.

And on those rare occasions when she doesn't get to the ball, opponents often miss because of the fear of rejection.

"I pretty much know by halfcourt whether I'm going to block a shot or not," Cook said. "Sometimes I'll say, "I'm gonna let that one slide.' Then the girl will go for a layup and miss. I guess it's because I'm around."

Cook's ability to stuff opponents has led to many fast-break opportunities, which is key for coach Mike Quarto's up-tempo style to be successful.

But Cook isn't there to swat shots. She also can score, averaging double figures in every game this season. Her all-around play is a big reason Gulf is 12-1 and a contender for the Sunshine Athletic Conference title and a playoff berth.

"She makes a difference," Quarto said.

And to think this is only her fifth season of organized basketball.

Cook said she hated the sport until her mother, former Clearwater star Monique Ellis, forced a ball into her talented hands. Gulf is fortunate that mom did so.

When freshman point guard Dominique English went down with an injury last season, the Buccaneers' 6-2 start was endangered.

The team lurched from a fastbreak transition team to a patient halfcourt game, and Cook had to replace her friend English as the center.

It was toughest on Cook, a slasher who bragged last year that "I'll go through somebody to get to the basket."

In two years of middle school games and summer leagues, she only knew English's pace of the game. Now, it was up to Cook to score, and to help her teammates do the same.

That switch last year helped Cook develop her inside game. But she did even more this summer to improve her scoring.

"I worked on my drop set, hook shot, reverse pivot, anything to get better," Cook said. "I'm the one that's got to lead out there. When it's game time, I'm all business."

Her improvement showed in the final of the Keeler Memorial tournament last week. Trailing Plant 29-15 with 6:35 left in the third quarter, Cook helped her team rally by scoring 10 during a 15-4 run. Cook scored 17 in the overtime loss and was named to the all-tournament team.

"I knew we had a pretty good team," Cook said. "But that game against Plant let me know we had something special. We stayed with a team that went to the state tournament the year before. Now we know we can play with the big girls and maybe get to state."