TAMPA — When Tampa Bay Tech takes the Lakeland Center court Friday for its second Class 8A state semifinal in as many seasons, the Titans will meet a Bartram Trail team that is used to making deep runs in the playoffs. The Bears were state runners-up in 2012, and this season they’re led by a guard who routinely scores 20 points a night.
Tampa Bay Tech coach Reggie Lawrence isn’t worried. His Titans have found their niche, and so far, it’s been a winning strategy.
“Honestly, we’re just going in and do what we do. We’ll watch (tape), look at tendencies of what they have, what they like to do,” Lawrence said. “But as far as trying to prepare, we’re just going to play our game.”
For the Titans, that means defense. And that’s the specialty of freshman Janiah Barker.
At 6-foot-3, Barker has led the way for Tech (27-3) on both sides of the ball. She averages a team-high 12 points, but perhaps where she’s at her best is stopping other teams from scoring. The Titans have held 11 of 30 opponents to 20 points or fewer, with eight of those defensive stands occurring in the past month.
“She’s a big body and she plays on the perimeter. Most people look at her and say, ‘Oh, she’s a post player,’ and she’s really not,” Lawrence said. “But we also can play her down there. Just her size and her length, that frustrates a lot of people.”
The freshman moved to Tampa from Panama City last fall in search of a better opportunity to be seen at the high school level. She was just what the Titans needed, having lost three of last year’s starters to injury, transfer and graduation. Barker, who received her first offer at 12 years old from Georgia Tech, has continued to get interest from SEC and ACC programs. As it turned out, the move was good for Barker in more ways than one.
About a month after she arrived, Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle, first making landfall in Mexico Beach, just 25 miles from Barker’s hometown. Both sets of Barker’s grandparents lost their homes in the storm.
“It was terrible,” Barker said. “A couple days later, me and my family went up there, brought some water, brought food … brought batteries, brought lights. (We) tried to help any way possible.”
Just weeks after the disaster, Barker took the court for the first time with her new team, scoring 40 total points in back-to-back games against Winter Haven and Seffner Christian. She hasn’t slowed down since.
Tech doesn’t score a lot. Barker is one of just two Titans in double digits, and they’ve won games scoring fewer than 50 on multiple occasions. But with a defense like they have and talent up and down the roster, the Titans don’t necessarily feel the need to put up more.
“I’m not going to say I came in here looking to score 50 a night. I’m coming here to make sure what needs to be done (gets done),” Barker said. “It’s comfortable, because you know if it’s your turn to step up and score, you can score. But you can trust your teammates to know they can get a bucket, too.”
Lawrence said his team is traveling to Lakeland in a different frame of mind this time. When it took on Nova in last year’s state semifinal, Tech, which had never made it out of regionals, was just happy to be there. This year — despite a starting lineup of three sophomores and two freshmen — making the Final Four was an expectation, not a fluke.
Sophomore guard Jayla Murray plans to use that experience on the big stage to her advantage, especially when it comes to helping out younger teammates like Barker.
“I’ve experienced it before, so I can help Janiah or Amiya (Evans) or some of the freshmen who haven’t been there yet,” said Murray, who also moved from out of state to attend Tech. “It’s going to be a lot of competition. They’re definitely going to be up on us, so we’ve got to push back and fight.”
Barker is used to having all eyes on her, whether it’s college scouts or players from an opposing team trying to figure out a way to stop her. Still, the freshman phenom said her stomach was in knots before the Titans’ region final, and she’s already nervous thinking about Friday’s big game.
After all, she may be on the fast track to a college career, but underneath her towering frame, Barker’s still just a kid at heart.
“I think it’s crazy, just an amazing experience to go my first year,” she said. “I never thought I’d make it. But my teammates, my coaches, we all had just one goal in mind: get a ring. That’s what we’re trying to get.”
State girls basketball
RP Funding Center, Lakeland; admission $10 (advance), $13 (day of); parking $10
Class 4A final: Carrollwood Day vs. Miami Country Day, 2
Class 8A semifinal: Tampa Bay Tech vs. St. Johns Bartram Trail, 2
Class 8A final, 4:30