MOORE HAVEN — Despite Tyra Baker dominating the inside game early and Sydnee Cypress finding a hot shooting touch from outside late, Moore Haven could not derail a resurgent Okeechobee girls basketball squad in the midst of its best season in five years.
Cheyenne Nunez and Lahna Baker ran the offense as Okeechobee pulled away from Moore Haven for a 52-37 win Dec. 11 at Moore Haven High School. With an 11-4 record as of late December, the Brahmans are all but assured of posting their first winning record since the 2009-10 season.
“This year we actually listen to what the plays are; we jell together,” said Cheyenne, who scored 13 points, which included a pair of 3-pointers. “This is the year we finally got all the missing pieces put together and we’re doing really good.”
After playing for Lake Placid last season, Lahna joined Okeechobee this year to form a solid 1-2 punch with Cheyenne as both senior starters alternate duties between point guard and shooting guard. Familiarity was never an issue because they were teammates in NAYO tournaments.
“I was pretty excited when I heard she was coming to Okeechobee,” Cheyenne said. “Me and Lahna work very well together. We know how to read each other. I know her like the back of my hand and she knows me like the back of her hand. We’re like two peas in a pod.”
Those peas – along with the addition of inside players with size – have helped Okeechobee sprout more offense. Last year the team hit the 40-point mark in seven games; this season, that mark was reached in all the team’s first 12 games with another dozen games left in the regular season.
Cheyenne and Lahna combined for six of Okeechobee’s 18 points as the Brahmans built an eight-point lead at the end of the first quarter against Moore Haven. When Moore Haven trimmed a 20-point deficit to 13 in the fourth quarter, Cheyenne responded by sinking the final dagger into the Terriers’ comeback hopes with a 3-pointer.
Cheyenne and Lahna bring similar characteristics to the court.
“We’re both aggressive; we’re both athletic; we’re both so ready to play,” said Cheyenne, who scored 22 points in a late November win against Jensen Beach. “Sometimes we butt heads, then we’ll get over it. We work perfect together.”
“They’re doing awesome,” said Okeechobee coach Joseph Smith. “They’ve really brought talent to the team. They’re leaders on the court. They’re real good student-athletes in the classroom. I couldn’t ask for anything else with those girls. They wear their jersey with pride.”
In a couple months, that pride will shift to the softball field.
“I’m sure coach Mary (Huff) is thrilled to have (Lahna) there, too,” Cheyenne said. “I’m pretty excited because she’ll probably be catching and I’ll be playing third base. The catcher and third have to talk a lot, literally like best friends. I’m excited because that will work perfect for us.”
As for basketball, the vastly improved Brahmans hope to carry a strong regular season into the playoffs. The team has not advanced past the district tournament since 1989, long before any of the current players were born.
“This year districts should be interesting,” Cheyenne said. “We want to go far.”
Ditto in Moore Haven, where the girls have reached regionals two years in a row but face the daunting challenge of being a public school team in a district loaded with private schools. The Terriers’ plight rests squarely on the shoulders of Seminoles with guards Sunni Bearden, Sydnee Cypress, Alicia Fudge, Aleina Micco and Caroline Sweat, and center Tyra Baker accounting for more than half the 11-player roster.
“They’re good ballplayers. There are things they have to work on, but they’re a big help for us,” said Moore Haven coach Vincent Lewis, whose club fell to 4-5 with the loss to Okeechobee.
Tyra is the lone senior among the Seminoles; the rest should be back next year.
“We’re young. I’m happy about that,” Lewis said.
Experience paved the way early against Okeechobee. Tyra, who scored a season-high 14 points three days earlier, was a force in the paint at both ends. She won battles for rebounds and scored six points in the first quarter on her way to finishing with nine.
Sydnee and Alicia provided glimpses of what Terrier fans can expect from their backcourt for the remaining season and next. The duo converted give-and-goes with each other that helped keep Moore Haven close in the first half.
With her sister and former Moore Haven standout Darlah Cypress in the stands, Sydnee displayed smooth shooting by hitting a bevy of short, mid and long jump shots in the second half on her way to a team-high 16 points.
“Sydnee is a tremendous leader for us,” Lewis said.
Sydnee, who twice scored 18 points in games in the first half of the season, is the team’s only junior. Even younger contributions come from Sunni, a sophomore, and the freshmen trio of Alicia, Aleina and Caroline.
Similar to Lahna in Okeechobee, Alicia has made an immediate impact with her new team since transferring this year from Admiral Farragut in St. Petersburg.
“She’s real good,” Lewis said. “She’s still learning the game. She gets a little frustrated with herself. She’s hard on herself and when she does that, she loses herself during the game at times. If we can keep her focused, she’s going to be great.”
Sunni missed the Okeechobee game because of illness, and the team missed her.
“The record doesn’t show how good we are. We’re a pretty good team,” Lewis said. “We’re much better when Sunni is playing. She makes it work. They feel more comfortable with their passes. It builds confidence with the whole team when Sunni is in there. She’s the cornerstone for our team.”
As of Dec. 13, Sydnee led the team in scoring with an average of 11.1 points per game, followed by Sunni (10), and Alicia and Caroline (8 each).
“It’s going good,” Sydnee said. “We’re starting to work better as a team and starting to shoot a lot better.”