Central Florida Flexes
Shawn Randall
Shawn Randall
Special to HoopGurlz
Posted Dec 6, 2006

High-school teams from Central Florida made a strong impression against an impressive, regional field during the Evans Thanksgiving Classic in Orlando.


ORLANDO, Fla. - Evans coach Kenny Kalina has actually put together a rather compelling event. He gathered four of Orlando's top teams (Apopka, Orlando Christian, Bishop Moore and Boone), convinced Winter Haven to participate, brought Barron Collier up from Naples, Monsignor Pace up from Miami and South Gwinnett down from Georgia. That's pretty much every significant contender in the state of Florida except for The First Academy, Florida High and Norland. And Kenny may get those schools to participate next year.

Central Florida teams dominated the Evans Thanksgiving Classic, winning every significant matchup. The Evans tourney goes a long way towards establishing Central Florida as a credible base for the expansion of girls basketball in Florida and in the Southeast. We expected the Central Florida teams to do well. But, perhaps, not this well.

Antionette Howard of South Gwinnett
Nationally ranked Winter Haven solidified its position as a premier team with wins over South Gwinnett (Ga.) and Barron Collier. Bishop Moore came in on Saturday and defeated South Gwinnett, too.

Jacksonville's top team, Jackson, came in undefeated and left with two losses. On Friday, Jackson looked sloppy in a loss to OCP. On Saturday they played much better but still lost to Boone, 54-51.

Apopka crushed Jacksonville Wolfson, 64-38.

In fact, the only Central Florida teams to lose games at this tourney were Oviedo and Lake Howell (to IMG Academy) and Evans (to Oviedo). But those games hardly could be considered significant since Oviedo, Lake Howell and Evans are all in rebuilding mode.

If Evans is able to run a first year event with this many star-studded teams, what are the prospects for the future? Well, two things can happen. First, teams can see that Central Florida teams are hyper-competitive and end up jostling for spots on next year's schedule. Second, teams can see that Central Florida teams are hyper-competitive and chicken out, preferring to expend their losses on their home turf. We think the former. Competition is always good.

Winter Haven's performance here makes the Rob Moramarco's Winter Haven Shootout all the more compelling. In that tournament, the biggest dog of them all - The First Academy - comes to town. While all the aforementioned teams were sweating it out at Evans this weekend, TFA sat back and looked on dispassionately. With a bulked-up Krystal Thomas in the middle and a slew of Comets Red players on the wings, they know they are the jewel of Florida's girls basketball teams. All the top Central Florida teams are jousting for the opportunity to get ransacked by the Royals. Anybody who misses the TFA/Winter Haven matchup in January is just a fool, that's all.

Briyanna Blair of Boone
But we digress. What happened at Evans?

We got to the gym just in time to catch the start of the Bishop Moore/South Gwinnett game. This was, perhaps, the best game of the weekend.

Embarrassed by their poor shooting performance against Winter Haven on the first day of the event, South Gwinnett came into this game with something to prove. Instead of firing jumpers, they went right inside to forward Antoinette Howard who promptly dropped in a couple of power layups. We thought, "This must be what Gators coach Carolyn Peck sees in this child. She didn't do this yesterday." Howard finished with 25 points, but Lindsay Watson dropped 31 to lead Bishop Moore to a 70-68 overtime victory.

The most highly anticipated matchup of Friday night' s session was Winter Haven vs. South Gwinnett of Georgia. The Winter Haven girls spent the summer of 2006 playing for the Tallahassee Essence. Several of the South Gwinnett girls played for the Georgia Nike Elite. The Essence and the Elite split a pair of games during the AAU season. This rubber match would be between their high school teams.

We expected a barnburner but got something less. South Gwinnett came out firing. But we couldn't really tell what they were firing at. They had a backboard and a goal at their end of the court, but they seemed to be avoiding them like the plague. They were jacking up threes and drawing and kicking to the baseline. None of their shots came even remotely close to the basket.

Lindsay Watson of Bishop Moore
Meanwhile Winter Haven did what Winter Haven does. They sent Tiffany Hayes to drain a three or two in order to draw the defense out. Then they sent point guard Amber Smith inside to dish out dimes. Pretty much standard fare. Winter Haven won 52-46 and was led by Tiffany Hayes' 20 points. Kiara Francisco tallied 16 for the Blue Devils. Alex Winchell put up 24 points for the Comets, swishing six treys in the effort.

The Winter Haven vs. Barron Collier rematch on Saturday was the highlight of this tourney. There'd been a lot of heated debate about the outcome of last years FHSAA 5A finale. Barron Collier won after Kelsey Assarian put on a storied defensive performance in which Winter Haven was held to a paltry 9 points in the first half. Winter Haven fans claimed the win was a fluke and wouldn't happen again in a million years. Barron fans claimed the win was the result of better coaching.

So this game shaped up as a revenge game for Winter Haven. Barron was fighting to prove they belonged with the elite programs in the state. The gym was electric with tension as these two behemoths squared off at center court.

In the first half, the game lived up to the hype, but Winter Haven blew the game open during the third quarter. Winter Haven announced their intentions at the 5:49 mark when Tiffany Hayes brought the ball upcourt, drove right, and the lane before her parted like the Red Sea. Hayes went through five BC players to score an uncontested layup. Knowing that Kelsey Assarian was in foul trouble, Winter Haven elected to go right at her - and she had no choice but to step aside. The Red Sea defense told Winter Haven that there was blood in the water. Like a pack of sharks, they moved in for the kill and won 69-46.

It's highly likely that these two teams will meet again in Lakeland. Barron forward Brittany Benson assured us that the outcome there will be different. "AND YOU CAN PRINT IT", she said.

We'll see.

Kurt Coleman chonicles events in Florida and around the country on his own website, Milquetoast Gazette

All-Tournament Team
Tiffany Hayes - Winter Haven (MVP)
Briyanna Blair - Boone
Alex Winchell - South Gwinnett
Brittany Hardy - Apopka
Desiree O'Neal - Jacksonville Jackson
Lindsay Watson - Bishop Moore
Marisa Gobuty - IMG
Chelsea Lee - Miami Pace
Kiara Francisco - Winter Haven
Kelsey Assarian - Barron Collier
Michelle Mitchell - OCP

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