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Mooney girls basketball heads to second-straight Final Four

The Cougars reached the championship game in 2021 before falling to Miami Country Day.

Cardinal Mooney is headed to the Final Four for the second consecutive season.
Cardinal Mooney is headed to the Final Four for the second consecutive season.
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Cardinal Mooney junior Olivia Davis is normally verbose, but she was having trouble finding the right words to describe her feelings on Friday night. 

"It is just … overwhelming positive emotion," Davis said after a pause. 

The smile on her face said the rest. 

The Cougars girls basketball team (18-6) minutes earlier had finished off a 62-43 home victory over Carrollwood Day School (20-10). In the state Class 3A semifinals, the Cougars were scheduled to play West Palm Beach King's Academy (24-5) on Wednesday afternoon at the R.P Funding Center in Lakeland.

A win propels Mooney into the state final, which is Friday. 

The feeling isn't new for these Cougars. Cardinal Mooney reached the Final Four a season ago, where they beat Master's Academy 47-32 to advance to the title game. The Cougars lost that game 59-34 to Miami Country Day. 

Cardinal Mooney junior Olivia Davis averages 16.2 points per game.
Cardinal Mooney junior Olivia Davis averages 16.2 points per game.

Davis said even though the results thus far have been similar, the two seasons have felt completely different. 

"The energy we have this year is unmatched," Davis said. "The confidence we have is unmatched. Last year we went into this (the Final Four) very rattled and not knowing much about the circumstances because none of us had been there before. This year, we know how everything goes. We knew what we needed to do to get here and what we still need to do."

Part of that energy infusion is the team's stellar freshmen pairing of Kali Barrett and Sy'monique Simon, who again shined against Carrollwood Day; Barrett had 18 points and Simon had 10. Part of that energy comes from Davis herself, who remains the team's fiery emotional leader and well as its most-consistent threat from three-point range. Davis had 15 points against Carrollwood Day.

The third part of the team's energy formula comes from the team's coach. Rico Antonio is in his fourth season at Mooney's helm and remains a firecracker on the sideline. Against Carrollwood Day, with his team up 19 points in the fourth quarter, Antonio got frustrated by the Cougars flubbing an inbounds play along their baseline, which led to a fast break the other way. There was little chance the play would affect the game's outcome, yet Antonio still demanded greatness — because he knows his team can deliver it. 

"Every win at this time of year, you know, it's not easy," Antonio said. "But we're certainly not satisfied by any stretch of the imagination. We have work to do still. We need to take care of the basketball. Ideally, I would like to have less than 10 turnovers a game. We need to possess the ball. That's what we want." 

As intense as Antonio gets during games, he's equally as compassionate away from the court. At the beginning of each season, Antonio cooks an Italian feast for his players at his home. This year the dinner consisted of chicken Parmesan and meatballs and fresh garlic bread among other dishes. It's a tradition that brings the team closer together. That closeness is the secret ingredient to the Cougars' success. 

"The girls seem to be gelling," Antonio said. "They seem to be happy and they are playing well as a result."

On Wednesday, Mooney will have King's Academy in its sights. The Lions are ranked seventh in Class 3A and 34th in Florida by MaxPreps. Mooney is first in Class 3A and 10th in Florida. The Lions are led by freshman Jade Jones who averages 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Junior Janessa Williams is also a factor at 10.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. 

The two team have one common opponent, Westminster Academy (25-5); the Lions lost 47-38 on Nov. 18 and Cardinal Mooney won 57-55 on Dec. 31.

If Mooney plays like it did against Carrollwood Day, the Cougars have a strong chance to advance. Mooney outscored Carrollwood Day in each quarter, slowly building its lead while never letting the Patriots — ranked sixth in Class 3A — go on a prolonged scoring run to gain momentum. Antonio's frustration with the team's turnovers was not misplaced. The Cougars gave away 18 possessions that way. But the team's defensive effort made up for those mistakes. 

One thing Mooney will not need to do on this year's trip to Lakeland is beat Miami Country Day, who not only beat Mooney for the title last season but has won seven state titles in eight years. The Spartans (20-9) lost 47-32 to Westminster Academy in the regional finals, meaning there is an opening for a new champion to take their place. 

The Cougars believe they have as good a shot as anyone left standing. 

"Don't count us out," Davis said. "We're coming."  



Ryan Kohn

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.

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