LAKELAND — The final horn blared at 9:08 p.m. inside the RP Funding Center on Saturday night and the Plant girls basketball team leaped, hugged and cried for joy — especially the two senior stars, forward Kendal Cheesman and guard Nyla Jean, who have started every game the past four years.
Finally, after three years of losing in the region playoffs and last year in a state championship game, the Panthers pulled off the ultimate goal of winning the Class 7A state title — beating Miami High 52-40 — and Cheesman and Jean were never better on the biggest stage.
Cheesman, in particular, was nearly flawless, scoring 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting, pulling down 18 rebounds and blocking two shots. Jean, meantime, finished with 14 points, four assists and four steals.
Through the relentless, aggressive pressure applied by Miami, Cheesman, Jean and the Panthers never blinked: Not when the Stingarees tied it at 10 in the first quarter, led 22-20 at the half, pulled ahead 26-25 midway through the third quarter, or tied at 38 with 5:40 remaining in the game.
In the final five minutes, in fact, Plant (26-3, No. 1 in Class 7A) finished on a 14-2 run.
“Honestly I was never nervous,” said Cheesman, who has committed to Vanderbilt. “It was just a feeling of confidence. Get a score, get a stop. Get a score, get a stop.”
Cheesman added that last year’s state final loss to Miami (63-38), “Never left our minds throughout the season. We didn’t want to feel that way again.”
Were the Panthers glad the 2021 final ended with a victory over Miami (15-9)?
“Oh yeah,” Jean said. “That makes it that much sweeter. We wanted it to be against Miami.”
Plant coach Carrie Mahon, in her 19th season at Plant, emphasized how last year’s loss to Miami lit a huge fire within them and ultimately drove out any nerves.
“The sour taste that last year dealt, we didn’t want to come back to that feeling,” Mahon said. “Literally it troubled us that we got to this point last year and we were so unsuccessful.”
It has been a long, rough haul indeed. After losing in last year’s title game, Plant wanted to get right back to work. The pandemic, however, threw a wrench into that.
“We didn’t even see each other for months,” Mahon said. “We could only communicate over the computer.”
When outside summer workouts were allowed, the Panthers strapped on face masks and went right to it on the football field in the blazing sun — sprinting, doing pushups and calisthenics. “It was all we could do,” Mahon said. “So we did all we could do.”
Added Cheesman: “Oh my God it was hot out there and it was tough, but we pushed through it because we wanted to do whatever we had to do to get back to the state title game. I think what we did on those hot summer days on the football field carried through to everything else we did during this season. It put us in a great mindset. We turned a negative into a positive.”
Now, finally, the Plant girls basketball team can hang a state title banner in the gym alongside all those other Plant state champion teams: Girls cross country (12 state titles), volleyball (10), football (four) and so on.
“Before we left school Friday morning we held hands on the court and looked up (at all the state title banners) and I said, ‘We’re coming back with one of those,’” Mahon said.
The accomplishment certainly wasn’t lost on the socially-distanced, masked crowd Saturday, a few hundred that often sounded like a thousand when they shouted for their girls at the final buzzer: “We love you! We love you!”
Written in gigantic letters on the water tower next to the football field, where the girls basketball team ran and ran last summer, and where Mahon couldn’t escape the words: PLANT HIGH SCHOOL Home of State Champions.
“Now I finally belong,” Mahon said. “Thank God!”