TAMPA ― In March, Tampa Bay Tech won the school’s first girls basketball state championship. The Titans capped a 29-3 season by defeating Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 8A state final. It never would have happened if the daughter of an ex-NBA player from Pensacola hadn’t befriended an eighth-grade phenom from Panama City.
Janiah Barker, already more than 6-feet tall, was an established player on the AAU circuit. In the summer prior to her freshman year, she attended a camp in Pensacola run by Reggie Evans, who had a 13-year NBA career with seven teams.
Evans’ oldest daughter, Amiya, was also a rising freshman attending the camp.
“We hit it off immediately," Barker said. “We were like long-lost sisters."
By the end of the camp, Barker and Evans were inseparable. They made a vow to attend the same high school, even if that meant one or both would be moving.
“They hit it off just like that. That’s always the best," Reggie Evans said. "They’ve never looked back.”
Reggie Evans, who grew up in Pensacola, was ready for a change. His wife, a Detroit native, was itching to live in a bigger city. Reggie compromised and said he would live in a big city in Florida, either Tampa or Miami. They chose Tampa.
“I didn’t have any family in Tampa but it was still close enough to Pensacola that I could get back there every once in a while," he said. “Then we started researching schools and (Tampa Bay Tech coach) Reggie (Lawrence) coaches my daughter (Elise) in AAU. We found out he coached at Tech so we decided to go there."
True to her word, Barker and her family also relocated to Tampa so she could be with Evans.
So from the time the Titans lost in the 2017-18 state semifinal to the start of the next season, Lawrence and the Titans gained a 6-foot-3 freshman power forward who is among the top players in the country and a 6-foot-2 freshman rebounder/defender with a former pro father.
And throw in sophomore Jasmine Peaks, a scoring guard who transferred from Palm Bay.
“It’s crazy," Lawrence said.
Just about every player from last year’s championship team has returned. The core of the team is sophomores and juniors. There are only two seniors.
The Titans are ranked second nationally by MaxPreps. As expected, they are off to a 7-0 start. Friday and Saturday they will play in the prestigious She Got Game Classic in Washington D.C.
Leading the team both on and off the court are Barker and Evans. They live about 15 minutes from each other in New Tampa. They are together during school, at practice and at home.
“(Barker) sometimes asks if she can come over to the house and I’m like, ‘Of course you can come over and chill, why are you even asking?'" Evans said. “We like to watch movies, go out."
“I like to stay at home," Barker interjected. “I’m a homebody. I have to get dragged out, but once I’m out, then I have a good time."
Barker was far from home this past summer. She was selected to play for the United States under-16 national team, which dominated a tournament in Chile. Barker averaged 7.7 points and eight rebounds.
“It was amazing," Barker said. “I never thought I would ever leave the country. I never thought I would leave my state. To go to Chile, it was like, ‘Wow.’ I really respect what I have in my country.' They were comfortable with what they had and they were happy. But their comfortable was not my comfortable. Seeing that, I’m grateful for what I have. They were happy though. They had family, they had food, they had their dog. They were loving life."
Barker and Evans are also loving life. They get to play together on one of the best high school teams in the country. Barker is among the team’s leading scorers, averaging more than 12 points per game. Evans is the team’s leading rebounder (7.6). But they both know a second state trophy won’t just be handed to them and the Titans.
“We’re nowhere near where we were last year right now," Barker said. “We’ve got to restart. We’ve got to relearn the plays, get back the chemistry. It’s like we have to start back up."
“We always stay humble," Evans added. “You’ve got to remind yourself that there is another high school right now practicing and getting ready to beat us. We’ve got to stay ready."
And stay together.
Contact Rodney Page at email@example.com. Follow @Rodney HomeTeam