Opponents often find Plant’s efficient, mistake-free style of play difficult to handle. That was not the case in Thursday’s Class 7A state semifinal.
Orange Park Oakleaf had all the necessary intangibles to keep up: speed, athleticism, defensive tenacity. For nearly two quarters, the game was tight. Early in the second quarter, the Knights even held a 21-20 lead.
But the Panthers had one key factor that proved to be the difference: experience.
Ten of Plant’s 13 players from last season’s team that reached the state championship game for the first time in school history were back, including senior standouts Kendal Cheesman and Nyla Jean. Oakleaf, meanwhile, was playing in the state semifinals for the first time and were led by a trio of sophomores — Taliah Scott, Fantasia James and Kaylah Turner.
There was no getting flustered, no panic at facing an early deficit. The Panthers’ veterans knew what to do. They turned up the intensity. They stayed composed. They made all the right moves.
And they won 69-52 to move on to Saturday’s final. Plant (24-3) will face the Palm Beach Lakes-Miami High winner with a chance to win the school’s first state title.
After trailing by a point, the Panthers went on a tear, outscoring the Knights 24-15 in the second quarter to go into the half with a 44-36 lead.
Early in the third quarter, the lead stretched to double digits.
Jean led Plant in scoring with 26 points to go along with 10 rebounds and five assists. Cheesman finished with 21 points and a team-high 16 rebounds.