During the early weeks of the Booker High girls basketball team’s season, things were shaky.
Four transfer players came into the program — two seniors (Kaitlin Bell and Kaliyah Newell), a junior (Miah Lowman) and a sophomore (Jalisa Allen). Those players, plus Booker’s returnees, took a long time to gel. Not only was their play a bit off, but also was their chemistry.
“In practice, we would fight all the time,” Bell said. “It took a while (to come together).”
The Tornadoes were winning, but not playing up to their potential, and not playing up to coach Shantia Grace’s standards. As recently as Jan. 24, Grace said she was still waiting for her team to play a complete game. At the time, the comments came during a six-game win streak.
That streak has now blossomed to 13 games, and the Tornadoes (22-6) are one win from the Class 6A final four. They play on the road at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 against Bradenton’s Southeast High, with whom Booker has split two games this season.
To get here, Booker had to beat Tampa’s Jefferson High at home Feb. 19, a game which began much as the Tornadoes’ season did: Messily. Booker missed open shots, but was stingy on defense. The first quarter ended 4-2 Jefferson. The Tornadoes took the lead and held it in the second quarter, but by the end of the third, they led by four, 21-17.
Then, much like during the season itself, the team came together late. The Tornadoes ripped off a furious run, boosting their lead to 14 before Jefferson made a few shots late for a 37-26 final score.
“We finally played how we play,” Grace said. “The first half was not our game. It took a while to find our groove, but the win is what matters.”
Grace knew it was a matter of when, and not if, they would find that groove. The team, Grace said, has finally started playing like a unit. Grace said in hindsight it was the previous meeting against Southeast, a 62-60 win on Jan. 9, that kickstarted the change, even though that change happened slowly. Different players are stepping up on different nights and carrying the team, she said, which helps the Tornadoes “go full-blast.”
Against Jefferson, a few players carried the mantle: Bell and junior guard Jaela Dennis led the way with eight points, but junior guard Cashanti Bradley added seven and junior guard Omari Davis added six.
Bell pointed to the team’s game on Jan. 4, a loss to Braden River High, as when the Tornadoes’ focus started to change, even if its play didn’t for a few more games.
“That opened our eyes,” Bell said. “We had to keep our heads high and start working as a team.”
And as for the vibe around the team?
“No more fighting,” Bell said. “We just joke around all the time.”
Grace said the team will prepare for Southeast no differently than it has the last two meetings. The Tornadoes will play aggressive, and fast, and are just as happy to burn a defense in the paint as they are from 3-point range. It is the team’s hustle, physicality and focus that has caused the 13-game win streak. With the team finally playing as one, Grace and her Tornadoes don’t expect to walk away with anything less than a trip to Lakeland for the final four.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.