LAKELAND — One down, one to go.
Plant will play for its first state championship on Saturday night after a 73-64 win over Palm Beach Lakes in the Class 7A state semifinals Friday afternoon at the RP Funding Center. Next up is Miami, which defeated Orlando Timber Creek 57-44.
The Rams did not have an answer for senior Kayla Sieper under the basket or junior Nyla Jean anywhere on the floor. Sieper scored a team-high 23 points. Jean added 22.
“My teammates were putting it right in my hands every single time,” Sieper said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of guards. They got me the ball whenever I was open."
Making their first state tournament appearance since 2004, the Panthers (30-1) didn’t show any nerves to start the game. They scored the first seven points and never looked back. Sieper was able to score several times under the basket in the first half. She had a stretch of three straight layups that gave the Panthers a 15-8 lead.
When Jean heated up in the second quarter, Plant was able to take control of the game. She scored 13 of her 15 first-half points in the quarter. During an 8-0 run, she had two layups to help increase the lead to 38-21.
“When Nyla penetrates, it’s deadly," junior forward Kendal Cheesman said.
Jean also drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the halftime score 41-24.
“I didn’t even know the clock was running," Jean said. “I just heard 5-4-3-2-1. I yelled, 'Silvia (Farfante), I got you in the corner.’ She tipped it to me. I just let it go."
Plant scored 11 of the final 13 points before halftime.
“We played a first half that we should be proud of," Plant coach Carrie Mahon said. “We shared the ball. Our defense was incredible. The second half we really didn’t perform very well. We did what we needed to do to finish the game off.”
Palm Beach Lakes (21-9) did indeed play better in the second half, but it couldn’t get any closer than eight points. The Rams scored the first six points of the third quarter. Midway through the third, Plant’s lead was cut to 44-34.
But seniors Kerrigan White and Honor Culpepper both made layups after that to increase the lead. By the end of third, Plant led by 12 points. Palm Beach Lakes had some chances to cut the lead to single digits, but Sieper kept making easy layups underneath and Plant converted free throws. It wasn’t until the final minute that the Rams trimmed the lead to eight.
“Nobody can match up with Kayla Sieper, especially when she gets those elbows going," Culpepper said. “We have to go up against that every single day."
Cheesman scored 13 points and added 14 rebounds. Culpepper scored 11 points. Plant out-rebounded Palm Beach Lakes 42-20.
“We got killed on the boards," Rams coach Cassandra Rahming said.
Palm Beach Lakes was led by Keishmy Ayuso, who had a game-high 29 points. This was the second time the teams have played this season. Plant won 73-57 in January.
Plant has never won a state title in girls basketball, and this will be the Panthers’ first final. The Panthers are ranked 11th in the state by MaxPreps while Miami is ranked 10th. The Stingarees lost the Class 9A state final last year to Wekiva in double overtime.
If the rankings are right, this year’s final should also be close.
“We’re ready to bring it," Jean said.