High School Sports

Swarming defense propels Ferguson girls to first state final

Ferguson’s Sheslanie Laureano (3) takes the ball to the rim as Wekiva’s Alexis Choice (24) fails to defend in the semi-finals at the Florida High School State Championships in Lakeland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.
Ferguson’s Sheslanie Laureano (3) takes the ball to the rim as Wekiva’s Alexis Choice (24) fails to defend in the semi-finals at the Florida High School State Championships in Lakeland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Ferguson’s girls still remembered how they felt stepping into The Lakeland Center for the first time.

A year later, the Falcons walked in like veterans.

It took Ferguson only a few minutes to completely take control of its Class 9A state semifinal game Friday and rout Wekiva 52-33 to advance to its first state-championship game.

Ferguson (25-7) will try to win the school’s first state championship in any sport in its 14-year history when it takes on Boca Raton at 3 p.m. in the Class 9A final.

“The experience you gain from just driving up to The Lakeland Center for the first time,” Ferguson coach Gabriel Lazo said. “It’s a big place and a lot of high school kids aren’t used to playing in a Civic Center like this. One thing our coaches and I tried to do was put together a strong schedule and play on the road against some of the best teams in the country.”

Aside from composure, the bigger key for Ferguson was defensive pressure.

The Falcons forced Wekiva (22-9) into nine of its 13 turnovers in the first half as they used a 24-2 run after the Mustangs scored the game’s opening bucket to seize control and never let up.

Wekiva has experience at state, having won a state title in 2014 and finished as a runner-up in 2015. But this year’s squad didn’t with five freshmen on its roster, including one starter.

“Defensively, our energy is something we really worked on coming into the week,” Lazo said. “We wanted to put as much pressure as possible on them, and we felt like having a good start against a young team against them was crucial.”

Sheslanie Laureano led Ferguson with 18 points, and Natalia Pineda had 11 points.

Pineda had the biggest heartbreak of last season’s semifinal loss to eventual state champion Vero Beach when she missed a last-second, potential game-winning shot.

“That start [Friday] gave us a lot of confidence from the get-go,” Pineda said. “We found out how important that was last year when we fell behind like 15 points.”

The Falcons continued to thrive on both ends of the court thanks to largely to guards Yaire Rodriguez and Mercy Gonzalez, whose efforts have compensated for the loss of 6-4 sophomore center Cheyanne Daniels to injury.

Gonzalez, a 6-foot junior who missed last year’s state semifinal loss to eventual state champion Vero Beach with a finger injury, finished with nine rebounds as Ferguson won the battle of the boards 51-39.

But Rodriguez, a junior listed at 5-5 who after the game said her height was more like 5-3, finished with a game-high 10 rebounds. She also had a game-high five assists.

“That’s how you make up for a 6-4 center that you lose right before the playoffs,” Lazo said. “A lot of others get the attention, but the catalyst to our team is these two, Yaire and Mercy. I appreciate how they give up potentially scoring 20-25 points per game at another school to be a part of this team.”

Both figure to play a crucial role in Saturday’s final when Ferguson matches up against Boca’s senior forward combo of 6-3 Rachel Levy, a Harvard commit, and 6-foot Grace Marko, a Boston College commit.

“We believe everything happens for a reason,” Pineda said. “Maybe Cheyanne’s injury happened for a reason and forced us to become stronger together.”

WEK (22-9): Graham 6, James 6, Perry 6, Holloway 3, Williams 12. FER (25-7): Gonzalez 4, A. Rodriguez 5, Laureano 18, Y. Rodriguez 7, Pineda 11, Grant 3, Kingwood 2, Charlton 2. Half: FER 30-7. Three-pointers: Williams 4, Perry 2, Laureano, Y. Rodriguez, Grant. Rebounds: Y. Rodriguez 10. Assists: Y. Rodriguez 5. Steals: Graham 3. Blocks: Pineda, A. Rodriguez 2.

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