- March 2, 2023
For Cardinal Mooney High freshman Kali Barrett, recognition of the girls basketball team's talent wasn't based on watching, but rather a certain level of athletic intuition.
"I knew it the second I walked in the gym (in the fall)," Barrett said. "Our chemistry came together so quickly. We got along well, and I knew we would be good."
It's not surprising to Barrett that the Cougars have reached the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A regional finals (Elite Eight). The Cougars did it last year, after all, on their way to a state championship game appearance. Despite coach Rico Antonio's insistence that last year no longer matters, the players came into the 2021-2022 season with expectations of grandeur. Those expectations, as Barrett suspected, are now being met.
Mooney's (17-6) latest feat was a 62-56 home victory over Fort Myers' Evangelical Christian (24-4) on Tuesday. The game had distinct ebbs and flows. Mooney went on a 14-2 run to begin the game and led by as many as 18 in the second quarter.
But at halftime, the Cougars' lead was 31-28. A combination of loose Mooney defense and tightly called fouls let Evangelical back into the game. The Sentinels fans in the building were out-cheering the Cougars fans at the half. But the team itself never panicked; they prepared for something like that and were ready when it did.
"Basketball is a game of runs," Antonio said. "We talk about it all the time. It's a four-quarter game. We're going to run and they're going to run, no matter who you are playing. You just try to limit it, whether that means six, eight, 10 or 12 points. And they certainly made runs. They came in 24-3 for a reason. They're good and they play hard."
The Cougars rebounded in the third quarter, getting the lead back to 10, and had it up to 16 in the fourth before Evangelical made another run. This one never got quite as close, however, with the final score being as close as the Sentinels got. Again, fouls played a large part in the comeback. Mooney junior Jordyn Byrd and sophomore Kennedy McClain both fouled out of the game and senior Natalie Mercadante had her first-half minutes cut because of foul trouble.
The foul situation meant other players had to step into large roles. Two freshmen — Barrett and Sy'monique Simon — answered the call. Barrett scored 22 points to lead the team. Simon scored 13 points, tied with junior Olivia Davis for second-most. As young as Barrett and Simon are, Antonio said he has no qualms about using them in important situations and has done so throughout the season.
"A lot of people do not realize this, but they (Barrett and Simon) always guard the other team's best players," Antonio said. "Kali starts, so she's on the best player, and 'Sy' comes off the bench, so when Kali comes out, she (Simon) rotates to the best player. They're asked to guard, score and rebound. I would not ask them if I did not think they could handle it. They can. What has impressed me with those two is they are extremely coachable. They take criticism well and they play defense, which is so important."
The team's schedule also came up clutch. The Cougars had the toughest schedule of any school in Class 3A, according to MaxPreps. That was no accident. Antonio said it was important that the team got challenged early and often after the success of last season. Just like every team goes on runs in an individual game, every team goes on a streak of less than A-grade play at some point during the season. The Cougars set up their schedule to get those subpar performances out of the way in December and January, allowing them to play their strongest basketball now.
Barrett was humble when asked about her scoring explosion against Evangelical, though she admitted that she saw weaknesses in the Sentinels' transition defense and took advantage of that. Barrett said her teammates give her the confidence to play her game and not hold back. The Cougars always believed they would win the game, Barrett said, because they believe in each other's abilities.
Up next for the Cougars is a home game against Tampa's Carrollwood Day (20-9) on Friday. A spot in the state Final Four is up for grabs. Carrollwood Day defeated Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High 31-30 on Tuesday to get to this point, which could be a break for the Cougars. Brooks DeBartolo (20-5) was ranked the No. 1 team in Class 3A by MaxPreps. Mooney is ranked second while Carrollwood Day is ranked sixth. On Jan. 28, Mooney beat Carrollwood Day 63-46 at home, a good sign for the team's chances on Friday, though Antonio knows that no game at this stage of the playoff is an easy win.
"It will take a good effort and a little luck," Antonio said. "You always need some luck at this time of year. We have to come out and defend and rebound and we'll see what happens."
The star freshman was slightly more direct.
"We're not done," Barrett said.