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Tornadoes girls basketball whirls into regional finals

Booker High used lockdown defense to defeat Gibbs High 69-40 at home Feb. 14.

Booker High girls basketball is headed back to the Final Four after a win over Academy of the Holy Names on Feb. 17.
Booker High girls basketball is headed back to the Final Four after a win over Academy of the Holy Names on Feb. 17.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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There is only one thing Booker High girls basketball Coach Ty Bryant still wants to see out of his team. 

It's something a lot of programs take for granted.

"I want them to have more fun," Bryant said with a smile. "I'm serious. We're beating the odds. Nobody thought we would be doing this."

The Tornadoes (21-7) are headed to the Class 4A regional finals after a 69-40 home win over Gibbs High (21-7) on Feb. 14. After falling behind 9-3 in the first quarter thanks mostly to a bevy of Gibbs free throws, the Tornadoes used their patented mix of suffocating defense and lightning-quick transition scores to keep the Gladiators off-balance. Playing a full-court press, Booker forced Gibbs into turnovers and was able to recover on defense on the occasions Gibbs was able to break the press, preventing easy baskets. 

"I knew if we could get them running, that would be a problem (for them)," Bryant said. "That was the message after the first quarter: get them running and box out on rebounds. It was a physical game. But we did it in the second half." 

The win gives Booker a shot at going to the state semifinals (Final Four) for the second year in a row. In that sense, Booker is not a typical underdog. But the Tornadoes lost four seniors from last year's team to graduation and lost four other players in the months since, for various reasons. It has resulted in more pressure being put on the team's returnees to make big plays when they need to be made, while younger and less experienced players take on important secondary roles. 

Booker High junior Jakai Peterson drives the lane against Gibbs.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

In the back half of the season, junior guard Jakai Peterson has become the team's go-to scorer. Peterson scored 32 points against Avon Park High on Feb. 3, 15 points against Anclote High on Feb. 9 and 17 against Gibbs. She's not alone, though: three other players  — seniors Leah DuBose, Sariah Bradley and Kymani Freeman — all average 7.7 points per game or more. 

What is unusual about Booker is not just its defensive prowess, but how much the team has embraced that style of play. DuBose said the players have come to value getting a steal, or otherwise causing a turnover via tight defense, as much as they do getting a bucket. 

"A lot of people like to play offense and look to score," DuBose said. "But we thrive on defense. When we get a steal and a fast break, that gets us going. We can do it again and again. We build off of that." 

As far as the Tornadoes have come, Bryant said, they deserve to enjoy the journey. He lives out that example for his players: during games, Bryant paces the sideline, oscillating between enjoyment and bewilderment at his team's shot selection or a foul call. But he always comes back to fun. In the waning minutes of the team's win over Gibbs, a Booker player was called for a foul and raced down the court in frustration at the call, ending up near the Booker bench. Bryant looked at the player and smiled. 

"That is the fastest you have run in two years," Bryant said to her. Both laughed. 

Booker's good times have a chance to continue. With a spot in the Final Four on the line, Booker will take on the Academy of the Holy Names (24-6) at 7 p.m. Friday at home. The Tornadoes are ranked No. 7 in Class 4A by MaxPreps while Holy Names is ranked No. 8. On Dec. 15, Booker beat Holy Names on the road, 52-42. Both teams have grown since that game, and Bryant and his Tornadoes know it will take a great effort to advance — but also that they have what it takes. 

The Tornadoes may have been underdogs once, but they play and act like the favorites now. 

"We're going to do it again on Friday (advance to the Final Four)," DuBose said. "I have confidence in my team and our coaching staff. We're going to get it done." 



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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