TAMPA — No doubt, Plant is playing like a team driven by an opportunity lost, and even more driven not to let it happen again.
“There’s probably four or five of us that haven’t slept since Feb. 29 of 2020,” Panthers coach Carrie Mahon said of a 31-win season that ended with a crushing loss to Miami in the Class 7A state final. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to and these seniors have been so driven to get back over there (to the final four).”
On Friday night in a Class 7A region final, top-ranked Plant turned Orlando Oak Ridge into little more than a speed bump on the road to redemption in Lakeland, throttling the overmatched Pioneers 63-29.
Starting on top with spark plug Nyla Jean, the Panthers (24-3) applied relentless pressure from the opening tip on both ends of the floor. Forcing seven Oak Ridge turnovers, all on steals, allowed Jean to quickly get her teammates jetting toward the basket.
Mix in a 6-for-6 effort from the free-throw line, 3-point buckets from sophomores Tanner Strickland and Morgan Sieper along with Jean, and a shackling brick wall that only allowed Oak Ridge six shot attempts in the first quarter, and the die was cast early as Plant surged to a 21-5 lead. The game eventually reached the 35-point threshold for running time early in the fourth quarter.
“It was energy, but we worked for this,” said Jean, a Georgia State commit who erupted for a game-high 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting and added eight steals. “We watched film, studied their personnel, we practiced every single day … we came in and hustled and worked as a team.”
“My girl, Ny … she’s crazy,” said senior center Kendal Cheesman (12 points, 11 rebounds). “She initiates the offense but she also is such a huge part of the offense. When she initiates, everybody’s on board and we’re all going to execute. And on defense, I’ve never played with anybody else that can contain players like that.”
Strickland (five points, four rebounds, three steals) drew special praise from Mahon for her efforts to hold junior scoring threat Torri Bernard to just eight points, which led the visitors’ offense.
“She made a big difference. She was just glued on (Bernard), who we were really worried about. We played great help-side defense, we worked a lot in getting through screens, and all of that went well.”
Add in some solid paint work from junior Hayden Stern (six points and seven boards) and the winning recipe was complete.
“These girls, they’re not playing to defeat an opponent, they’re playing to win for each other,” Mahon said. “They hang out 24/7, I asked them to go in a bubble and just be with each other, and they really want to win and to succeed for each other.”
“There’s satisfaction (with this win) but we’re not satisfied all the way,” Cheesman concluded. “We know what we can do and what’s achievable, and we’re going to get the goal that we want this year.”
And Jean summed up the goal for next Friday in Lakeland.
“We’ve got to win it all. For Coach, man, and for everybody … we’ve got to win it all.”
Girls basketball state semifinals
At RF Funding Center, Lakeland
Plant vs. Orange Park Oakleaf, 12:30 p.m. Feb. 26
Clearwater vs. American Heritage, 4 p.m. Thursday
Brooks DeBartolo vs. Miami Country Day, 4 p.m. Wednesday