PLANTATION – Just 24 seconds into Tuesday’s Class 5A-Region 4 semifinal, Okeechobee High School girls basketball coach Jovanny Torres called a timeout. It came immediately after powerful American Heritage-Plantation scored the game’s first basket.
Torres’ strategy to interrupt the early flow and calm his players paid off…for a while.
Okeechobee certainly wasn’t blown away from the start. In fact, the Brahmans gamely battled the nationally ranked top five and three-time defending state champion Heritage, but the Patriots’ size, pressure and skill ultimately were too much for the young visitors to handle.
Heritage, which plays in a brand new gymnasium complete with an electronic video scoreboard high above midcourt on the private school’s campus, advanced with a 57-27 win in front of about 75 spectators who wore masks due to the pandemic.
Heritage (22-2) moves on to face Norland in a regional final Feb. 19. Okeechobee, meanwhile, saw perhaps its most successful season since the 1970s end. The Brahmans (13-4) arrived in Plantation coming off a district championship win for the first time in at least a generation and its first regional playoff win since 1979. After the loss to Heritage, Torres emphasized to his team that there was no reason to sulk.
“I told the girls I don’t want to see anybody with their heads down,” Torres said. “That’s a team that has University of Florida commits on it, and we came out here and fought. We got freshmen driving to the hole against these big seniors, getting ‘and-1 calls.’”
Indeed, Okeechobee wasn’t shy about taking the ball to the hoop, even with the 6-foot-2 Gator-bound twins Taliyah and Tatyana Wyche in their way. When the Seminole Tribe’s Adryauna Baker drove the lane for a layup that trimmed Heritage’s lead to 10-6 midway through the first quarter, Okeechobee showed it wouldn’t go away quietly. However, the Brahmans didn’t make enough first shots, which was critical because second chances were sparse. Turnovers also proved to be pivotal.
“We played a great game, but we got a little stage fright when they ran their press,” Torres said. “Instead of trying to run our press break, we tried to dribble through it. That’s what got us in trouble, but when we ran the press break it looked good and we got the ball up court. But their length and athleticism is a lot to handle. They played man-to-man the whole game, so it was hard for us to get open looks.”
Heritage led 15-6 after the first quarter and 33-13 at halftime on its way to moving to three wins from a fourth straight state title. Tatyana Wyche led all scorers with 17 points followed by Sydney Shaw and Joey Delancey with nine each.
Baker, a junior guard, finished with five points. She helped keep the game close early with two steals, one block and a layup in the first four minutes of the opening quarter. She scored four of the team’s first six points.
Sanye Washington led the Brahmans with seven points.
Okeechobee started the season with nine straight wins. The Brahmans have generated a 33-11 record the past two seasons and should be strong again next season as nearly the entire roster will be back. The team has only two seniors, the tribe’s Caylie and Haylie Huff; neither of whom made the trip to Plantation.
Before shifting attention to next year, Torres, whose assistant coach and head JV coach is the tribe’s Kalisa Baker, said he hopes his players appreciate what they accomplished this year.
“I don’t think they realize how great a season they actually had. They’re so modest,” he said.