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Okeechobee ready for postseason rematch against powerful American Heritage

Okeechobee High School girls basketball coach Jovanny Torres talks to his team during its district championship victory Feb. 4, 2022. (Photo Kevin Johnson)

The Okeechobee High School girls basketball team moved to within one win of reaching the Class 5A final four thanks to a 42-40 overtime thriller Feb. 15 in a regional semifinal against visiting Norland-Miami Gardens.

If the Brahmans are to make it to Lakeland for states, they will have to dethrone a private school powerhouse. Four-time defending state champion American Heritage-Plantation (22-4) is ranked No. 4 overall in the state. Okeechobee and Heritage will meet in a regional final Feb. 18 in Plantation at 7 p.m. It will be a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal. Okeechobee is trying to earn its second-ever final four appearance; the first came in 1979 when the Brahmans lost to Tarpon Springs in the semifinals.

Okeechobee (20-4) enters the game with more depth than last year’s team, aided by the addition of 6-foot-2 freshman standout center McKenzie Neal, who was named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association’s player of the year for Class 5A-District 13. The Brahmans also appear to be peaking at the right time. They are on a nine-game winning streak, which includes a district championship and two regional playoff wins. Even in setbacks they’ve been close; three of their four losses have come by fewer than five points.  

“This is by far the best team I have ever coached in my nine years here at OHS, including the boys teams I coached before I took over the girls program,” said Okeechobee coach Jovanny Torres, who was named FACA’s coach of the year in the district for the second straight season. “They are finally buying into the ‘team’ concept and playing for the best shot on the court [and] not forcing one-on-one street basketball. They are executing the plays to perfection and getting the ball to the open player no matter who it is. They are trusting each other and when we do that we are a dangerous team.”

Last year Heritage overwhelmed Okeechobee and won by 30 points. This time the Brahmans won’t have to deal with the 6-foot-2 Wyche twins, who are now freshmen for the University of Florida Gators. But the Patriots are still among the state’s elite. Several of their players are back from last season and they added Ta’Niya Latson, a five-star recruit regarded as one of the top high school guards in the country. She signed with Florida State last fall.

Torres, who is also the athletics director at the Seminole Tribe’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School, said his team is excited and ready for the rematch. The Brahmans feature a balanced scoring attack. Four players are averaging more than seven points per game, including the tribe’s Adryauna Baker (7.8).

“We have so many weapons that makes it difficult for teams to scout us,” Torres said. “On any given night it can be Adryauna Baker with the hot hand, Jasmine Shanks, McKenzie Neal, but as of late it’s been Semaj Jasper. She has really stepped up and made big time shots for us that gets the crowd engaged and gives us momentum.”

Jasper had a team-high 14 points against Norland while Neal had 13 points and Sanye Washington contributed 10 points. Baker snagged three rebounds and had three assists, two steals and two points.

With the teams knotted at 21-21, Torres used the halftime break for a pep talk that helped spark a big third quarter.

“I told them in the locker room this was our game, our court, our fans. This is what we have been talking about since the beginning of the year, playing against the best to show we belong in that conversation,” he said.

Okeechobee made a statement in that conversation by forging a seven-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Norland rallied to send the game into overtime, where the Brahmans’ defense took over. Norland scored only two points in the extra session.  

“In overtime, once again our defense carried us and forced bad shots and turnovers that led to a couple much needed baskets and a huge defensive stand with under a minute to go sealed the win for us,” Torres said.

After going 31 years without an appearance in the regional playoffs, Okeechobee has now made it three years in a row. This year’s team has a chance to end the 41-year final four drought.

“Words can’t explain how proud I am of this group of girls and I’m blessed to be on this journey with them,” Torres said.

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Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at kevinjohnson@semtribe.com.
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