TAMPA ― Plant High girls basketball coach Carrie Mahon flashes a sinister smile when she starts talking about defense. She demonstrates the “towel drill," where players hold a rolled up towel over their heads as they defend a teammate. She points to the cones players have to run through to improve footwork.
“They’re not too happy when they see the cones," Mahon said with a grin.
As the Panthers (29-1) prepare to play in their first state tournament since 2004, Mahon knows it’s the unpopular drills without the ball that got them there. Plant has numerous players who can score. They average more than 60 points per game and regularly score in the 70s or 80s.
But perhaps the most impressive number this season is the amount of points the Panthers allow: 28. They will harass teams up and down the court. They get 13 steals per game, and it all starts with those tedious, grueling defensive drills in the middle of practice.
“It’s not our favorite thing," senior guard Honor Culpepper said. “But we know that if we give it our all the first two times, then we don’t have to do it anymore. We go really hard when it comes to defensive drills because we want to get them over with."
There is going through the drills and then there is really believing in the drills. Mahon said this year’s team doesn’t just go through the motions. They have seen the results on the court.
“The girls are able to put the ball in the hole, no doubt," Mahon said. “But they’ve really sold themselves on team defense. They are very willing to work on everything in order to get better. They may not like it, but they work hard and get through it."
Plant will begin its quest to win the school’s first girls basketball championship on Friday, when it plays Palm Beach Lakes (21-8) in Lakeland. The Panthers already beat the Rams 73-57 in early January at the Winter Haven Invitational.
Plant is the No. 1 seed of the four teams remaining in the Class 7A tournament. The seed is well earned. Plant’s only loss was to Fayetteville (Ark.) at the prestigious Naples Holiday Shootout in December.
The team is loaded with talented players. And one of the keys this year is that they all stayed healthy. Culpepper is back after missing her junior year with a knee injury. And senior guard Kerrigan White is back after missing the last part of her junior year with a knee injury.
Senior forward Kayla Sieper, sophomore Silvia Farfante and freshman Tanner Strickland have all chipped in. And junior Kendal Cheesman and junior guard Nyla Jean have had outstanding seasons. Cheesman, who is committed to Vanderbilt, gets 16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Jean averages 13.9 points and 3.2 steals.
“Nyla is second to none," Mahon said. “Her offensive skills may be the best we’ve ever had at Plant. And she plays very good defense."
Jean, who is uncommitted but has the interest of several schools, is one of the few players who actually likes to play defense.
“I would rather make a steal," Jean said. “It gets me hyped up. It gives me energy, but it also gives my team energy."
Plant has not really been challenged in a while. The last close game was on Jan. 29, a 51-38 win over last year’s Class 7A state champ, Tampa Bay Tech. The Panthers have won all five district and region tournament games by wide margins.
Mahon is trying to make sure her team doesn’t get too confident for the semifinal game. She has a bad memory of the last time her Plant team played in the final four — against Fort Lauderdale Dillard in 2004, a 68-38 loss.
In the week leading up to Friday’s semifinal, Mahon ran her team through the dreaded defensive drills and ensured they were focused. And if she needed extra motivation, she could always point to the banners hanging in the gym.
“No banner (for girls basketball)," Cheesman said. “All of these banners in here; we need our own banner. We are really motivated to get one."
State basketball semifinal
At the RP Funding Center, Lakeland. Admission is $10 in advance, $13 on day of the event. Parking is $10.
7A: Plant vs. Palm Beach Lakes, 12:30 Friday