Sports Editor

SC girls basketball Final Four

The St. Cloud Bulldogs have reached the Class 8A girls basketball Final Four and will play at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland on Friday at 4 p.m. against St. Thomas Aquinas.

51-49 win over Plant sends team to Lakeland for Friday's Class 8A semifinals

How does a Bulldog eat a big 'ol piece of meat?

One bite at a time.

But what if they have to eat a tall Plant?

Same concept, it seems.

The St. Cloud girls basketball version of the Bulldogs took down the plant -- Tampa Plant High School (25-5) and its lineup that boasted four starters 5-11 or taller -- on Friday in Tampa, and with a 51-49 win in the Class 8A Region 2 championship now gets to crash the dinner party that is the Final Four in Lakeland.

The Bulldogs (29-2) will face Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (22-6) at the RP Funding Center on Friday at 4 p.m. in their semifinal. St. Augustine Bartram Trail (24-6) and Tampa Bay Tech (27-3) will meet at 2 p.m. and the winners play on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. for the state championship.

This is the sixth consecutive year an Osceola County boys or girls basketball team has reached the state tournament in Lakeland -- and Osceola (Class 9A) and Poinciana's (6A) boys are still kicking at the can.

The Lady Bulldogs last reached Lakeland in 1994, when they won the Class 4A crown behind all-time state leading scorer Dana Smith. In a bit of irony, St. Cloud defeated St. Thomas Aquinas, 51-44, to win that title.

Despite a slow start Friday and being down 26-17 at the half, the Bulldogs won their 24th game in a row by nibbling at Plant's lead and getting big buckets from its entire lineup.

While Plant's Kendal Cheesman scored 15 of her 17 points in the first half and Nyla Jean had 18 of her 20 in the second, six Bulldogs scored in the second half as St. Cloud won the third and fourth quarters, 34-23.

"That team is huge," St. Cloud Coach Chad Ansbaugh said of the Panthers. "We started horribly and couldn't make a shot early. At the half I told my coaches, 'If we're going to lose, we're going to do it doing what we do, shooting 30 three-pointers.'"

It wasn't quite that many, but a pair of big threes to open the third quarter by Bailey Ansbaugh and Beka Benge, who broke the Bulldogs' single-season mark for threes this year, sparked a 12-3 run that saw St. Cloud tie the game at 29 midway through the third. Three possessions later, Benge hit a short jumper that gave the Bulldogs their first lead at 33-32.

Jean and Alexys Mathangani shot Plant back into the lead to open the fourth quarter before Bulldogs' point guard Moriah Sanchez went back to work. The sophomore, held scoreless until crunch time, hit shots on three straight possessions, the last a three-pointer with 2:47 left that gave St. Cloud a 45-44 they'd ultimately never lose.

Angie Rodriguez then hit a two-pointer and free throw on successive trips that made it 48-44. Jean hit a shot with 1:13 left that made it 48-46, and the game, like so many of this magnitude do, turned into a free throw shooting contest from there.

Despite his team not being seriously challenged in a game like this since a short stretch of the District 8A-6 championship against Melbourne and a Jan. 19 game at Westminster Academy, Ansbaugh he was at peace and the players were comfortable in the high-pressure atmosphere of the situation in a loud gym on the road.

"We practiced against our varsity boys, had them play pressure, and I had crowd noise pumped in. The girls hated it but it worked," he said. "We had worked hard on our inbound plays, so no worries. I thought it was the other team that was rattled, not us."

Jean hit a free throw with 47 seconds left to make it 48-47. Benge answered with two of her own and it was 50-47 with 38 ticks left. Jean was fouled at the other end and hit one with 22 seconds left. Plant quickly fouled and after St. Cloud missed the front end of a one-and-one, Jean quickly drove the ball into the paint. St. Cloud center Eno Inyang blocked her shot in the lane, then blocked another one, but fouled Jean on the way down with 13 seconds left. She missed the first, made the second to make it 50-49, and the Bulldogs got the ball to Jaden Langer, who was fouled with 9.4 seconds left. She hit one of two to make it 51-49, leaving Plant one desperation shot at the buzzer that fell harmlessly left of target.

The final tally saw the Bulldog scorers clustered. Inyang had 13 but Benge scored 10, Ansbaugh had eight, Sanchez and Rodriguez had seven and Langer added six. Defensive stopper Rakela Cummings made her presence felt at that end of the floor.

According to MaxPreps' computerized state rankings, St. Thomas Aquinas is ranked sixth in Florida across all classes, and No. 2 in Class 8A. For comparison, St. Cloud is No. 27 in Florida and No. 6 in Class 8A.

"The nice thing is, we get a week to prepare for them," Ansbaugh said following Friday's game. "So give us a couple of days, and we'll see."