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Plant girls dominate en route to long-awaited state berth

The Panthers enact a running clock while topping Orlando Boone and get back to the final four for the first time in 16 years.
Plant senior Honor Culpepper, seen here earlier this season, scores a game-high 20 points in Friday's Class 7A region final victory. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

TAMPA — Sweet 16. Plant finally ended years of playoff frustration Friday, exploding early in a 60-28 rout over Orlando Boone for the Class 7A region championship. It was the Panthers’ first playoff title in 16 years.

“It’s very rewarding, and this is the team to do it with," said Plant coach Carrie Mahon, who collected her 506th career victory. “This team is so unselfish and they’re so into each other. They pass the ball so well.

“It’s definitely been a long time coming, but there’s just special players with this group."

Plant, the No. 1 region seed, advances to play Palm Beach Lakes (21-8) next Friday at Lakeland. The Panthers (29-1), ranked 11th in the state by MaxPreps, will take a 20-game win streak into that semifinal. No. 3 Boone (20-10) lost for the first time in nine outings.

The Panthers took control early Friday with senior Honor Culpepper leading the way. Culpepper scored 15 of her game-high 20 points in the first half, including 13 in a 28-point first quarter as Plant raced to a 43-14 lead at the intermission.

Culpepper, who hit four 3-pointers in the game, sparked a 19-0 burst by Plant spanning the first two quarters with eight consecutive points to close the opening period. Culpepper’s final basket of the contest, a 15-foot jumper with 5:37 remaining in the third quarter, increased the Panthers’ advantage to 52-16 to initiate a running clock for the rest of the way.

“It’s super special," Culpepper said. “We’ve been waiting to go to state since my freshman year. I’ve been on varsity, and this is what I’ve been working for.

“I was thinking this is my last game that I’m ever going to play in this gym. So I thought I’d come out and just give it my all, which I think we did (and) won by a wide margin.”

Plant never trailed as Culpepper made the game’s first field goal. The Panthers extended their lead to 17-7 before making its big run. They shot 42 percent (20-of-48) for the game and held Boone to 24-percent shooting (11-of-46) — including 17 percent in the first two quarters (4-of-24).

Nyla Jean added 12 points and Kayla Sieper 10 for Plant. Leilani Guion had 11 points for Boone, which hasn’t won a region championship since 2007.

Plant’s championship drought had been longer. The Panthers’ previous crown came in 2004, when they defeated Haines City 42-41. Plant then lost in the state semifinals to eventual winner Dillard, 68-38.

The Panthers had previously reached region play in all but two years since, failing to move on to state in 13 tries (losing eight quarterfinals, four semifinals, and one final). The one loss in a final, last year’s 51-49 setback to St. Cloud, gave Plant motivation for this season.

“(Getting to state) is something that we’ve set out to do since (last) October," Mahon said. “In fact, last year on Feb. 22 when we lost (at Plant) by two to St. Cloud, we absolutely made it our No. 1 goal to take the next step, which of course is going to Lakeland."

Culpepper, who was only 2 when Plant made its previous state appearance, said she is glad to assist in Mahon’s return to Lakeland.

“She’s awesome and she definitely deserves this," Culpepper said. “I’ve known her for so long and I expect it’s really special (for her). I think that a lot of us girls try to play for her and get this win for her, because she deserves it so much."