JENSEN BEACH – From a record standpoint, the most successful season in the history of Okeechobee High School girls basketball ended Feb. 13 when the Brahmans fell to host Jensen Beach, 51-49, in a nighttime Class 5A-Region 4 quarterfinal.
The Brahmans, who feature Seminole players Adryauna Baker, Julia Smith and Caylie Huff, along with Seminole Audrey Snow as an assistant coach, reached new heights this season with a 20-7 record despite having a young team with just two seniors.
Making its first state playoff appearance since 1989 – long before any of the players in this latest game were born – sixth-seeded Okeechobee gamely battled back from deficits and outplayed No. 3 Jensen Beach for large chunks of the game. The Brahmans held a few slim leads in the fourth quarter, clawing their way back from deficits of 7-0 to start the game and 29-21 at halftime.
Okeechobee struggled early to handle a well-executed full-court press from Jensen Beach, which forced backcourt turnovers and appeared ready to pull away before fans even got settled in their seats.
A year ago, recuperating and rallying may not have been in Okeechobee’s fiber in an intense postseason game, but the way the Brahmans settled down and began to create open shots and solve the press revealed how far the team has come in its memorable season.
“These girls are resilient and they fight,” said second-year Okeechobee coach Jovanny Torres. “Last year, if we got punched in the mouth like that in the first quarter they would have laid down; they would have come to the bench complaining. But [tonight] they fought to the end and as a coach that’s all you can ask for.”
A year ago Okeechobee won only seven games. This season turned out to be a turnaround for the record books. Torres said he was told that the team’s 20 wins is the most in the program’s history.
“We had a heck of a run. I’m so proud of these girls,” he said.
A frantic fourth quarter started well for Okeechobee when Alkeecia Clayton sank a 3-pointer that gave the Brahmans their first lead of the night, 37-35. When Clayton and Jensen Beach’s Daisy Galarza later exchanged 3s the game was knotted at 40-40 with five minutes left.
The lead continued to sway back and forth. A layup by Semaj Jasper put Okeechobee up 44-43 with 2:40 left, but it turned out to be the Brahmans final lead of the season. Seconds later a three-point play from Ja’Shya Christie gave Jensen Beach the lead for good, but the score remained close all the way to the final buzzer.
With her team trailing by four in the waning seconds, Smith stamped an exclamation point on her senior season when she made a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left that brought Okeechobee to within one point at 50-49, but Jensen Beach made the front end of a one-and-one with seven seconds left and then ran out the clock after grabbing the rebound on the missed second shot.
A pivotal part of the fourth quarter was that Jensen Beach made enough free throws down the stretch and grabbed the ones they missed.
“The only thing that hurt us today was rebounds. If we rebound the ball it’s a different ball game,” Torres said.
No surprise that the final few minutes were physical as players sacrificed everything with their seasons on the line. Baker was smacked in the nose on a battle for a loose rebound and Smith was fouled hard in the gut on a layup attempt; both were shaken up and briefly exited the game but returned.
Clayton, a senior, led Okeechobee with a game-high 23 points, which included five 3-pointers. Jensen Beach, which went 3-0 against Okeechobee this season including a victory in the district championship the previous week, received balanced scoring across the board, led by Galarza (12), Danica Osdon (12) and Christie (10).
In the first half, Huff came off the bench and made the only shot she took, a 3-pointer from the top of the arc that drew Okeechobee to within 19-18.
Okeechobee’s rally in the second half was ignited by Baker, who drained a 3-pointer to lead off the third quarter. When Smith finished off a textbook fast-break layup that trimmed the deficit to 31-29 it energized Okeechobee fans, who, led by students, belted out a “Let’s go ‘Chobee” chant as the atmosphere amped up a few notches with Jensen Beach’s side trying to answer back.
In her final high school game, Smith had six points and was among the team’s top defensive players, diving for loose balls and fighting for rebounds against taller players. Overall, Torres said Smith, who didn’t play last season, continued to get better throughout the season.
“I’m proud of her,” Torres said. “It took her awhile to get into the flow. The beginning of the season was so slow for her because she took that year off. I told her if I got you last season you would have been a monster this season. She finished the season so good and I’m so proud of her. She could have called it quits [earlier in the season]. She was struggling badly to where she would go in the locker room and sit by herself. Her teammates would always pick her up and I think that’s what kept her going. She comes to the gym and puts in the work. She busts her butt and it showed. At the end of the season, she came on strong. I’m super proud of her.”
Smith said she’s confident the program will continue to be successful next year.
“I’m proud of my team,” Smith said. “We fought today, but we’ve just got to close out games. They got it next year. I definitely have hope in them.”
Baker, who had six points, and Huff are part of the strong contingent that has Torres already looking forward to next season. Baker, a sophomore, blossomed this season in several areas, including leadership. She averaged nearly 10 points and hit double figures a dozen times, including 17 in a district semifinal win. Huff, a junior, contributed valuable minutes coming off the bench. With other returners and some talented eighth-graders getting close to joining the program, Torres expects the Brahmans will continue to head in the right direction.
“I’m excited for what we have to come,” he said. “I’m only losing two girls. The nucleus of my team is coming back.”