Even programs that have reached back-to-back Final Fours still have lessons to learn.
Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball (13-5) found that out Tuesday night.
In a back-and-forth home game against Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High (11-8), the Cougars made enough mistakes down the stretch to make first-year Coach Marlon Williams literally hopping mad. The mistakes — poor shot selection and turnovers in transition among them — added up to a 64-61 loss.
The loss won't deter the program's goal, a third-straight trip to the Florida High School Athletic Association Final Four in Class 3A. In fact, Williams is hoping his team, which entered the game ranked third in the class by MaxPreps, learns a thing or two from the disappointing experience.
"We miss a few defensive assignments and a few rebounds, and you see what happens," Williams said. "We also have to learn to win as a team, moving the basketball and learning how to take good shots. Sometimes a three isn't needed. Sometimes you have to go down low and make the basket that you can. So we'll get better from this."
Williams took over the program from Rico Antonio, who stepped down in 2022 after four seasons. Antonio took the program from a middling place to new heights; last year, Mooney was four points away from winning its first state championship, losing 44-41 to Westminster Academy instead. Though that team was young — and the Cougars still are, in some ways — the roster Williams inherited looks different.
The Cougars lost two members of last year's starting five, neither to graduation. Forward Jordyn Byrd decided to focus on her booming volleyball career instead of basketball and forward Kennedy McClain transferred to Sarasota High after Antonio's departure. Roster losses of that significance are hard to overcome, but the Cougars' returning trio of senior guard Olivia Davis, sophomore guard Sy'Monique Simon and sophomore forward Kali Barrett provided the program with a solid foundation.
All three have lived up to the lofty expectations set by their previous performances. Davis, the team's only senior, is averaging 15.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. The University of Tampa signee is never afraid to play aggressively, something that often catches opponents off guard. Simon averages 11.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and is a Velcro-like defender; she leads the Cougars with 1.9 steals per game. Barrett is averaging nearly a double-double every night, as she leads the team with 16 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Filling the other two spots on the floor has been a combination of sophomore guard Bri Behn, junior forward Sam Kotasek, sophomore guard Avery Davis and sophomore guard Josie Maloni. Mooney is thinner in its rotations than it has been in years' past, putting more pressure on everyone to contribute each night as well as stay out of foul trouble.
Thus far, the plan has worked. Mooney's losses have come to elite teams such as Seffner Christian (fifth in Class 3A) and Blanche Ely High (first in Class 6A). Even Brooks DeBartolo, despite its average win-loss record, is ranked ninth in Class 3A and will likely climb after beating Mooney. But Williams does not want to see any more losses, especially if they come how Tuesday night's did.
Williams came to Mooney with more than 20 years of basketball coaching experience, most recently coaching with the Florida Girls Basketball AAU program based in Orlando. Williams said he knew the program has been to two Final Fours in a row when he was hired, but didn't know much about the returnees. Williams said he was glad to find a roster with as much young talent as Mooney's has. But he's an old-school coach at heart, so before he let the Cougars' stars do their thing, he had to make sure they had their fundamentals down pat.
"We always start out on the defensive end playing hard," Williams said. "That's pretty much it. Play help defense. Follow your man. All these things that you are taught at a young age, we try to hang our hat on those. But it's a challenge. Playing defense is not the most glamorous thing. Everybody wants to shoot the Steph Curry three, but the defense is always going to be the core of a good basketball team."
In December, Davis said Williams is not shy about making his point known during practice and looks to her to provide leadership on the court, something Williams reiterated on Tuesday.
"He definitely holds me accountable, that is for sure," Davis said of Williams in December. "He'll yank me out of the game if I make a turnover. He pushes me past my limits. He pushes my basketball side out of its comfort zone. But that's what I need to do to go to the next level."
Davis also said she believed the team has the ability to return to the Final Four despite its younger roster. With four regular season games remaining before the postseason begins, the Cougars — though still learning — are in position to be as tough an out as ever.
"My expectation since I got here was to get a ring," Davis said in December. "We have our eye on it and we're not going to let up."
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.