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Tough schedule sharpens Tornadoes girls basketball for postseason

Booker High started the season slow but remains confident that it can "make noise" in the playoffs.

Booker High girls basketball Head Coach Ty Bryant said he switched from a man-to-man defense to a zone defense this season.
Booker High girls basketball Head Coach Ty Bryant said he switched from a man-to-man defense to a zone defense this season.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Don't look at the Booker High girls basketball team's win-loss record (9-9) for an accurate estimation of its ability to win.

Things have changed since the calendar turned to 2024. 

Before, in 2023, the team was trying to find itself. Key members of Booker's last two teams — both of which reached the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 4A Final Four — had graduated, and Head Coach Ty Bryant was tasked with coaching up younger players while integrating transfers from other schools. In the process, the team's leading returning scorer, senior guard Jakai Peterson, was forced into an even bigger role, and the team suffered injuries to its front court that made progress that much slower. 

It all contributed to an up-and-down start that carried into the team's first game of the new year, a 60-40 loss to Seffner Christian on Jan. 12. 

Booker High senior Jakai Peterson is averaging 13.8 points per game.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Then things began to change. The next game, against Cardinal Mooney High on Jan. 15, was another loss, 49-41. But the result was actually an encouraging sign of the team's progress, Bryant said: On Dec. 12, Mooney had beaten the Tornadoes by 34 points, 78-44. Making it a game decided by a few possessions, against one of the premier teams in Class 3A, was a positive sign, even if the win-loss tally didn't show it. 

Since the January loss to Mooney, the Tornadoes have won four of their five games, the lone loss coming by three points against Lakewood High (15-4), whom Bryant considers one of the toughest teams in 4A. That streak includes a 56-54 win over Sarasota High, a Class 7A school. The FHSAA's ranking algorithm understands the threat Booker can be: Despite the .500 record, Booker is ranked 16th in Class 4A. 

What has changed? The biggest thing, Bryant said, is that time has passed. There is no shortcut to take when asking a team to have chemistry, no instantaneous way for young players to learn the game of basketball at the level Booker asks of them. A few months into the season, things are working themselves out. Talents like sophomore Yvette Brown are beginning to emerge; Brown, a 5-foot-6 guard, is averaging 12.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game over her last five games. When someone needs, to step up, someone does. Junior guard Jsiyah Taylor averages 6.8 points per game, but scored 20 points in a 70-55 win over Keswick Christian on Jan. 22. 

Peterson, too, has picked up where last season ended; she is averaging 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 steals per game. 

Bryant has always been a defense-first coach, and that is no different this season. What is different: Instead of his preferred man-to-man scheme, he's had the Tornadoes playing more zone to better suit the team's personnel. 

It has been working. Booker has held opponents to 53.2 points per game. That does not mean Bryant likes it. 

"It hurts me," Bryant said with a smile before shaking his head.  "I hate the zone. But we had to adapt." 

Brown said the team has regained its groove over the last five games. Bryant's message — "Don't give up on yourselves" — has resonated, and with winning has come a renewed confidence, from both the players and the coaches. The Tornadoes have two regular season games left before district tournaments begin. Neither IMG Academy Blue (3-10) nor Southeast High (2-17) will likely provide much of a challenge, but the Tornadoes' difficult schedule to this point has prepared them for the challenges ahead. And though many of the players from the last two Final Four runs are gone, Bryant and his staff know how to push their players to get the best out of them when it is most required. 

As unpredictable as the postseason can be, no one knows if Booker will make it three-straight seasons in the Final Four. But Bryant believes his team has come too far to go home completely empty-handed. It comes down to the work the team does in the practice gym every day, Bryant said. Work hard enough, and believe hard enough, and the team's goals can come true. 

"We're getting something," Bryant said. "I don't know if that's the district, the region or states, but we're getting something. We're going to fight all the way to the end. We're still here, and we are not going anywhere." 



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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