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Young Oxbridge girls basketball team eyes state championship prize

Oxbridge Academy has only one goal left ahead of it, and team leaders Kaylon Smith and Aaliyah Stanley make it clear in practice.

“They like to say, ‘ring-chasing,’ ” ThunderWolves coach Tracy Wolfe said. “They’re just motivated. In practice, they’re keeping that idea of ‘We want a ring’ on the forefront. They’re always saying it. Every drill, they’re saying it.”

Oxbridge is only two wins away from getting that ring. The first of those wins will have to come Wednesday when the ThunderWolves take on Orlando-Jones in the Class 5A state semifinals at 4 p.m. in the Lakeland Center.

The ThunderWolves’ single-minded focus becomes more impressive when the team’s youth is taken into account. Haley Race, a guard/forward hybrid player who is averaging 3.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, is the team’s only senior, and there are no juniors on the roster. The aforementioned leaders, Smith and Stanley, are both sophomores.

“I think, in a way, it’s been a blessing,” Wolfe said. “They don’t necessarily realize what they’re walking into yet. It’s been business as usual.”

Wolfe said that lack of perspective with such a young team has helped keep the ThunderWolves from getting psyched out before they even take the court.

But Wolfe also does not want her team walking into the Lakeland Center blind. When she coached at Bandys High in Catawba, North Carolina — a school of about 1,000 students about 35 miles northwest of Charlotte — she made back-to-back appearances in the state Final Four, reaching the state title game once.

“I’ve told them quite a bit,” Wolfe said. “Especially (about) the gym that we’re going to be playing at; it’s kind of a strange layout. We played in a layout like that in North Carolina, and it altered … our shooting quite a bit.”

Shooting was not an issue for the ThunderWolves in their last game, a 57-37 home win over Tampa Catholic in the regional finals. Tampa Catholic, which had a significant size advantage, forced Oxbridge to shoot the ball instead of driving the the basket. The ThunderWolves responded by making nine three-pointers.

“If they have a big down low, the threes are going to be open,” sophomore guard Alexa Zaph said after that win.

Jones has one of those taller forwards in 5-foot-9 junior Chardell Jones, who leads the Fightin’ Tigers with an average of 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Wolfe said she’s drawing on her experience of having to gameplan against one of Palm Beach County’s best players, Cardinal Newman’s Milan Morris, for Wednesday’s game.

“We feel like if we can contain (Jones and guard Jamiya Turner), as we’re capable of doing,” Wolfe said, “then the game should be in our favor.”

Grandview Prep 64, Monticello-Aucilla Christian 50: Megan Rampersad scored 16 points and Alexis Romer and Tayler Wright contributed 11 points each as the Scots defeated the Warriors in the Class 2A state semifinals in Lakeland. The Scots will face Ormond Beach-Calvary Christian at 8:30 tonight in the state final.

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