After an extended chat with his Booker High girls basketball team and assistant coaches, coach Ty Bryant emerged with a smile on his face, wishing the school's janitorial staff goodnight and laughing on the way to his car.
His good mood was not evident when the team left the court nearly 30 minutes earlier. Booker (14-7) had lost to Clearwater High (14-6) 79-70. At various points in the second half, that score was more lopsided; the Tornaodes consistently trailed by around 20 points. But the final score also could have been even closer, or perhaps come with a different outcome. In the fourth quarter, Booker went on a furious run, pressing Clearwater into mistake after mistake and turning them into easy points. Down 14 with 2:30 to go, Booker got within seven until a combination of missed shots and 50-50 officiating calls went against the Tornadoes and ended any realistic comeback chance they had.
The loss stung in the moment. After taking the time to cool emotions, however, Bryant said he felt good about his team going into the postseason, which begins Feb. 1.
"That effort is the sign of a team that is going to be a problem," Bryant said with a laugh. "And that's a good team we played. They held us to 29 points in the first half. But we ended with 70. We're not bad, either."
The Tornadoes aren't a big team, but they are fast, skilled and deep. As of Jan. 25, no Tornadoes player averaged double-digit points a game despite the team averaging 56.4 points a game. Instead, the Tornadoes have five players who average five points or more a game (and another, junior Jaida Cunningham, just below that mark at 4.9 a game). The highest average belongs to junior Leah DuBose at 9.6 a game followed by junior Chariot Johnson at 8.4 a game. Johnson also leads the team with 4.9 rebounds a game.
Bryant said the lack of size hurt the Tornadoes against Clearwater, which could get into the paint in the first half and score without much trouble. Clearwater has two senior centers in Phillicia Jackson and Kyleigh Welsh who stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, and also have the 6-foot junior forward Olivia Fuller. Booker's tallest player is 6-foot-0 Cunningham, whom Bryant championed as a defensive stalwart but had little help against Clearwater.
If Booker can do in the postseason what it did in the second half against Clearwater, though, size may not matter. Teams cannot score in the paint if they can't get the ball into it; the Tornadoes' relentless pressure, coupled with the athleticism of players like DuBose, Johnson and sophomore Jakai Peterson, who leads the team with 3.2 steals per game, put Booker in control of the flow of the game. Bryant said he wants to see more of that as the regular season turns its final pages.
Also helping the team prepare for the postseason is its strength of schedule. Booker, ranked seventh in Class 4A by MaxPreps, has played a number of schools from other classifications in the hopes of iron sharpening iron. That includes Clearwater, ranked 11th in Class 5A, but also Cardinal Mooney High twice (first in Class 3A), Carrollwood Day (sixth in 3A), Vero Beach High (seventh in Class 7A) and Charlotte High (second in 5A). Booker is 1-5 in games against those teams, but each game has made them better.
That's part of the reason why Bryant left the building so happy. Nearing the end of year two at the Tornadoes' helm, Bryant said the job has been more work than he expected, but he's proud of what the program has done during his tenure. The team is playing well, yes, but also doing well in the classroom. Bryant said DuBose is second in her class in terms of GPA this year and last year the team held a collective GPA over 4.0. The Tornadoes are smart and talented, two things that should scare opponents not just this year, but into the future.
"We're just fine," Bryant said. "We could use a little more consistency. Sometimes when teams go to a 2-3 zone we get stuck and don't move to the ball. But once we start picking it up, look out. They have to slow us down. That's not easy to do."
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.