LAKELAND — A year after falling short in the state championship game, the Plant girls basketball team is again one victory from a state title.
Plant will take its shot Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Class 7A state championship game, an opportunity earned after beating Orange Park Oakleaf 69-52 on Friday.
A couple of things Saturday will feel familiar, namely the setting, Lakeland’s RP Funding Center, and the opponent, Miami High, which thumped Plant 63-38 in last year’s final.
Outside of those things, Plant coach Carrie Mahon said, forget it: “Our mentality this time is completely different. Last year we felt relieved to just have made it to the final. This year we feel like we have another step to take. (Winning a state semifinal) is not good enough. We don’t want to feel again what we felt last year (after losing to Miami). So it’s difficult for me to be totally happy right now.”
From the looks of Plant’s performance Friday, Miami, which defeated Palm Beach Lakes 46-39 to advance, better take heed.
Oakleaf (24-3 and ranked No. 3 in 7A) was loaded with great athletes, who gave Plant (25-2, No. 1 in 7A) relentless challenges, particularly in the first half.
After one quarter, featuring some the hottest shooting from both sides during the tournament this week, the teams traded the lead four times, with Oakleaf sinking 4-of-8 3-pointers for a 21-20 lead.
Plant ended up pulling ahead 26-24 two minutes into the second quarter, and though frequently pressed by Oakleaf, the Panthers never trailed the rest of the way.
Walking into halftime, Mahon said she looked up at the scoreboard — Plant 44, Oakleaf 36 — and said to herself, “We are not a 44-point halftime scoring team. We can’t put up 44 again in the second half. I said we have to go in and stress that we have to pick up our defense in the second half.”
They did. In a big way.
With guards Nyla Jean and Tanner Strickland switching up on the talented Oakleaf sophomore guards, the Knights cooled off, hitting just 1-of-9 3-point attempts in the second half.
On the offensive end, Jean and senior forward Kendal Cheesman were having their way, both inside and out. Jean finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Cheesman had 21 points and 16 rebounds.
Perhaps most importantly, Plant led in the overall rebound tally with a whopping 46-19 advantage.
“Plant’s size finally caught up with us,” Oakleaf coach Frederick Cole said. “They were getting second and third opportunities (under the basket). I told our team at halftime that it’s about (6-foot-2 Cheesman). She could shoot the 3 and then go down on the block. She was tough for us.”
Like Mahon, Cheesman said Friday was no time to feel relieved because she remembers far too well how it went down in last year’s final two games: “That great feeling we had after winning last year’s semifinal game was completely wiped out by the terrible pit in our stomachs after the loss in the championship game. We remember that terrible feeling and we don’t want to feel it again.”
Added Mahon: “Experience is a great teacher. Unfortunately sometimes experience is painful. But you can learn from it and I believe we have.”