It was a rare role indeed for the Dillard girls’ basketball team.
A program that has nine state championship banners hanging in its gym, including five in a six-year span from 2010 to 2015, actually entered Friday afternoon’s Class 7A state semifinal in the role of underdog.
That’s because on the other side of the floor was Fort Myers High School, the reigning two-time state champions led by McDonald’s All-American point guard and South Carolina commit Destanni Henderson, ESPN’s No. 1 ranked point guard in the nation.
Sure enough, Henderson and a loaded Green Wave roster proved too much for the Panthers as Fort Myers cruised to a 64-51 win in the RP Funding Center.
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Fort Myers, 13-15 but 24-4 on the floor after being forced to forfeit 11 wins a month ago with an ineligible player, will look for a third consecutive title on Saturday against Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee in the 7A final.
“We knew the pressure would probably be on them [Fort Myers] because of their ranking and recent accomplishments but, knowing they had some great shooters and great post players, we prepared for them the way we always do,” said coach Marcia Pinder, now 40 years into her tenure at Dillard. “But defensively we just did not execute the way we would’ve liked to. We didn’t take away the penetration, which caused major problems.”
After a rocky start to the game, falling behind 16-8, the Panthers actually settled in and went on a 14-0 run to go up by six. But Henderson, who led all scorers in the game with 20 points along with five assists and seven rebounds, took control leading Fort Myers back on a 15-5 run to close out the half.
Trailing 31-27, Dillard was still very much in it, but when the Green Wave came out and scored the first eight points of the second half to go up 12, the Panthers never got any closer than eight the rest of the way.
“We weren’t sharing the ball and passing it around as much and failed in our defensive assignments especially taking away the middle and that really hurt us,” said guard Ayana Emmanuel, an Alabama State commit and the lone senior on the team, who finished as her team’s high scorer with 16 points.
When Henderson and Fort Myers’ other top player, Chaniya Clark, both went to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter in foul trouble, Dillard only trailed by eight and perhaps has a small opening but failed to cut into its deficit.
“We thought that might be our chance but then we continued to turn the ball over and also did not do a good job of being patient,” said Pinder. “I think we got rattled there by them being in foul trouble instead of executing and finishing.”
DILL: (24-4): Emmanuel 16, Johnson 13, White 9, Burrows 7, Christia 6. FM: (13-15): Henderson 20, Brunsion 16, Outten 11, Spencer 7, Clark 6, Johnson 4. Three pointers: Emmanuel 2, Johnson, Spencer. Rebounds: White 8. Assists: Henderson 4. Steals: Burrows 4. Half: FM 31-27.