Rebuilding years don’t happen for Miami High and this season was proof, even as the Stingarees fell short of a second straight girls’ basketball state championship Saturday.
Miami High — after losing six seniors from its 2020 team — made it all the way back to Lakeland for the Class 7A championship for the fourth straight year before falling short against Tampa Plant, 52-40, at the RP Funding Center.
“What they’ve done is amazing,” coach Sam Baumgarten said. “A lot of the underclassmen — they want to hear it. They know we’ll be special next year again. It’s hard to swallow for the seniors, but that’s just the way it goes. I’m so proud of this team. In my eyes, we’re champions.”
The Stingarees (15-9) spent all year proving Baumgarten wrong. They lost their top three players from their championship-winning team, including Colleen Bucknor, who’s now playing for the UCF Knights. They transformed from an atypical zone team into a familiar-looking, Miami High defensive juggernaut. The Stingarees even lost eight games in the regular season. Baumgarten didn’t consider a return to the final four to be a guarantee.
On Friday, they shut down Palm Beach Lakes to spring an upset in the 7A semifinals. On Saturday, they were once again within striking distance in the second against a top-100 team in the country, according to MaxPreps’ rankings, before Plant (26-3) closed on a 12-2 run.
As good a defensive team as Miami High became throughout the season, the Stingarees didn’t have the personnel to slow down Nyla Jean and Kendal Cheesman for a full four quarters. In the second half, the two stars led the Panthers on two scoring runs to avenge their 2020 title loss to Miami High.
“I don’t think we were able to put pressure on them like we did last year. Having to slow it up a little bit, play more of a halfcourt was conducive to them,” Baumgarten said. “They’re tough. They’re both D-I players.”
The Stingarees made the first half into a defensive struggle and took a 22-20 lead into the third quarter. Plant finally turned it into a shootout midway through the third.
Cheesman, who signed a national letter of intent with the Vanderbilt Commodores last year, started the run with a three-pointer from the left wing and guard Kiara Cruz answered with a stepback baseline jumper, sending Panthers guard Tanner Strickland stumbling backward and putting Miami High ahead 26-25.
Cheesman answered with a long jumper and then Cruz, who scored a team-high 14 points, banged a corner three off the back of the backboard. Plant’s elite shot-making ability took over and the the Panthers scored on seven straight possessions to build a 38-31 lead.
“We have this chemistry between us and we know what this team needs,” Cheesman said of her one-two punch with Jean. “This team believes in what we need and so we work together.”
Miami High fought back one more time. Guard Janay Quinn made a wild and-one floater, slammed her fist toward the ground and then smiled as she watched the replay on the big screen. She knocked in the free throw to cut Plant’s lead to 38-36 and then dished to forward Danajah Peterson on the next possession for an easy layup to tie the game at 38-38 with 6:09 left.
The Stingarees only scored two more points the rest of the way and the Panthers began one more run. Plant scored on its final six possessions to pull away from Miami High and win its first state title, behind 24 points from Cheesman and 14 from Jean, who signed with the Georgia State Panthers last year.
While Plant donned its gold medals and hoisted its trophy, Quinn stood away from her teammates on the baseline. She wanted to make sure she had a good angle to watch Plant celebrate. Her nine points and four assists helped carry Miami High in the second half. It’ll be on her to carry the Stingarees to a fifth straight title game next year.
“That fuels her fire,” Baumgarten said. “She’s just putting gas in the tank for next year.”
Columbus boys advance
Led by Reggie Luis’ 32 points and 14 rebounds, the Columbus Explorers boys’ basketball team defeated the host Coral Gables Cavaliers 67-55 on Saturday.
The Explorers, trailing all but a minute of the first half, carried a 7-point deficit into the third quarter. The score see-sawed back and forth until halfway through the third quarter when Columbus went on a 10-2 run and opened the fourth quarter with an 8-point lead.
The Explorers lost all three of their previous outings against Coral Gables this year.
Columbus: Reggie “RJ” Luis, 32, Garyn Bess, 15, Rebounds: RJ Luis 14, Assists Hubertus Pivorius 9. CG: Romer, 19, Delgado 18. Halftime Columbus 22, CG 29.
Westminster Christian boys advance
Jack Butler opened the scoring in the first minute of the game, sliding a goal past the keeper off a beautiful through ball from Caue Goncalves as Westminster Christian defeated the Trinity Prep boys’ soccer team 2-0 on Saturday to advance to the state title game next week.
The Warriors defense was stout throughout the game, with center backs Sean Maresma and Munir Reyes leading the way. They withstood a relentless onslaught from Trinity Prep, and sealed the game after Lucas Ruiz scored on a counter late in the second half.
Goalie Johnny Gleason made some terrific saves late, preserving the shutout against a prolific scoring team.