By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Special Jennings, the coach of Montverde (Fla.) Academy, was a heckuva college player back in the day at Xavier University. She was an elite point guard and floor general who guided the Musketeers to a national ranking in the early portion of this century.
Turns out she’s heckuva coach too.
Jennings and her second-seeded Lady Eagles were up for the challenge Friday morning during a 67-54 win over instate rivals DME Sports Academy (Daytona Beach, Fla.) in the GEICO High School Nationals girls semifinals in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
The Lady Eagles (19-3) meet top-seeded New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) or fourth-seeded IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) Saturday morning at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
It was a balanced attack that guided Montverde into the championship encounter. Janiah Barker, who is the team’s leading scorer, was saddled with foul trouble in the opening half. She wound up with 13 points and seven rebounds, but it was Mjracle Sheppard, a 5 foot 10 junior guard, that carried the load with 18 points (on 7 of 15 shooting), six rebounds and four assists. Fernanda Ovalle, a member of the Chilean U-16 National Team, added 12 points.
DME (25-4) relied on 6-2 junior Chloe Kitts, who scored with an array of moves and shots from all angles. Kitts pumped in a game-high 25 points, snatched 13 rebounds and blocked one shot for her double-double.
DME was outscored 11-0 off the bench and managed just 38.9% (21 of 54) from the floor. DME trailed from start to finish, making a few rallies to keep the game close.
Montverde never wilted. Instead withstanding any runs that DME put forth.
It was the second meeting of the season between the nationally ranked programs. DME won the first one, 67-59, on Jan. 1. This outcome was different.
Kitts singlehandedly kept DME in touching distance in the second half. She buried a 3-pointer in transition with 4:02 left in the game to pull her team to 58-54. Kitts netted a quick seven points in the opening four minutes of the quarter. Her inspiring play turned a potential rout into a tight game.
Montverde was a different team when Barker is on the floor. When DME made a game of it in the third quarter, Barker made sure to help rebuild her team’s lead. Late in the period she tallied five straight points to push a five-point edge to 53-42 heading into the fourth.
DME made a spirited comeback in the third with defense getting a huge assist. That led to transition points and offensive rebounds. Kitts scored on an offensive putback and Auburn-recruit Sydney Shaw (12 points) drilled a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key at 4:38 and the double-digit deficit for most of the game was cut to five (41-36), the closest since the first quarter.
The Lady Eagles were a three-headed attack for 16 minutes with Sheppard hitting for 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting (50%) and both Ovalle and Central Florida-bound center Fatima Diakhate adding six. Montverde forced nine turnovers and connected on 14 of 32 of its shots (43.8%). Barker, a McDonald’s All American and Georgia signee ,scored four points but picked up her third personal foul midway through the second and went to the bench.
DME was limited to Kitts with 14 points and nine rebounds and Shaw with four points. As a team, they hit on only 9 of 25 shots (36%).
Every time DME inched closer in the second quarter, Montverde pushed back. When Cori Allen (seven points) coasted for an uncontested layup with four minutes left in the half, DME struck for a timeout. Kitts, a talented junior with numerous high major offers, was the lone weapon on offense. Her inside presence and ability to run the floor allowed her to score at will despite being down, 30-22.
Ovalle’s traditional three-point play gave Montverde a 28-19 lead.
Montverde seized control in the first quarter with a nine-point edge, 23-14. Sheppard scored 11 points to fuel the run.
In the opening minutes, the Lady Eagles were up 14-7. Sheppard (five points) and Barker (four) teamed for nine points in the up-and-down affair. DME could not muster much offense but Kitts carried the load with six points through four minutes.