LAKELAND — Karim Nohra shrugged, hugged his assistant coaches and cracked a smile.
After the final four’s biggest blowout in a decade, what else could he do?
Nohra’s Academy at the Lakes squad demolished Sheridan Hills Christian 65-24 in Tuesday’s Class 2A state semifinal at the Lakeland Center. The Wildcats will play for Pasco County’s first state championship Wednesday in an 8:05 p.m. showdown with FAMU High.
“Very speechless,” said senior forward Tatiana Manuel, who scored a game-high 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting.
The Wildcats (26-2) wasted no time in proving they were ready to play in the county’s first state title game since Zephyrhills (1986).
The Wildcats scored 20 of the game’s first 23 points and had four steals and three blocks in the first four minutes.
Manuel scored 17 points in the first quarter to help AATL take an insurmountable 33-7 lead. Senior Andrea Mauger also outscored the Sharks in the period, scoring 10 of her 20 points in the first eight minutes.
The 41-point margin of victory was the most at state since Deerfield Beach’s 94-38 victory over Palm Beach Lakes in the 2003 Class 6A championship game.
“It still feels unreal that we won,” said Mauger, who added six rebounds, five assists and five steals. “I can’t even believe it, compared to last year, when we came in here crying.”
Those tears came from a 21-point state semifinal loss to the same FAMU team the Wildcats face Wednesday at the Lakeland Center. The defending state champion Rattlers edged Grandview Prep 53-49 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
Nohra and the Wildcats admitted to feeling jittery in Lakeland last winter against FAMU and stars Jasmine Jones and LaKaris Salter — both of whom return this year. AATL didn’t look nervous this time in its second trip to the final four.
“This was like second nature now,” Nohra said. “It was no big deal.”
The Wildcats prepared for the Lakeland Center’s spacious gym by practicing Monday at the Sun Dome. That aided the strong scoring nights from Manuel and Mauger, and an eight-point contribution from Timecia Cohen.
AATL was even more composed and impressive on defense. It recorded 20 steals, including four from Rebecca Hannah and three each from LuLu Santiago and Janise Cassanello. The Wildcats forced 25 turnovers and held the Hollywood-based Sharks to 17 percent from the field.
Alex Gittens flummoxed Sheridan Hills Christian leading scorer Caitlin McCluskey, who scored 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting.
“You could tell they’d been here before,” McCluskey said.
And the Wildcats will be here again — with redemption and the first state title in school history at stake.
“I think last year, the nerves and just the atmosphere kinda got to us,” Mauger said. “But this year, it’s all about business.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.