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This girls basketball season has been one of the better ones in recent Hillsborough County history. Several county teams have been ranked in the state polls and, on the eve of next week's district tournaments, several appear to have legitimate shots at reaching state final fours. Here's a look at some of this year's outstanding squads before they begin the journey into the state playoffs.
ACADEMY OF THE HOLY NAMES: Led by twin sisters Gianna and Catriana Messina, the Jaguars, state final-four qualifiers last year, are 19-6 and ranked No. 4 in Class 3A. Gianna is second in Hillsborough in scoring (20.1 ppg) and Catriana leads the county with 7.8 assists per game.
Academy enters the District 11 tournament as the No. 2 seed and faces third-seeded Tampa Catholic in Thursday's opening round. Following that will be a likely matchup in the final against the state's No. 2-ranked team, St. Petersburg Catholic, which defeated the Jaguars in their two previous meetings this season.
"In our previous matchups (against SPC) we had spots where we didn't play well for a couple of minutes, and they went on runs" Academy coach Casey Higgins said. "We need to play a full 32 minutes to beat them."
ARMWOOD: Armwood starts five seniors and has three more coming off the bench, which could explain why the Hawks are 18-6 and poised to make a run at Freedom for the Class 5A, District 8 title.
Forward Willonda Windham leads the team in scoring and rebounding (15 points, 10.2 rebounds), while Monique Reynard chips in 13.7 points a game.
The Hawks are the No. 2 seed and likely will have to defeat Freedom for the district title. The Patriots own two victories over Armwood this season, including a 60-52 win on Jan. 12.
"I think we've tried every which way to play them," Armwood coach Jeff Pafunda said. "We're going to see what we've done in the past that's worked and go with that. We have to hope we're playing our best and hope that they're maybe not playing their best."
BLAKE: The Yellow Jackets improved to 19-1 Thursday night after defeating a 19-3 Wesley Chapel team that had been receiving votes in the Class 5A poll. The Yellow Jackets are the top seed in District 10 and will go against eighth-seeded Robinson on Tuesday.
They likely will meet Plant, which they've beaten twice this season, for the district title.
"We'll just do what we've been doing," coach April Williams said about her team's strategy for districts. "We don't have to change what we do for any particular team."
The No. 9-ranked Yellow Jackets (5A) have triple scoring threats with Robyn Williams (14.7), Chanele Patton (12.6) and Kayla Vickers (11.8). Patton also averages 10.7 rebounds, third best in the county.
CAMBRIDGE: A region finalist the past three seasons, Cambridge again is turning in a superb season. The Lancers (21-2, No. 3 in Class A) are led by senior guard Stephanie Grace (20.6 ppg), center Caitlin DeBoer (14), guard MacKensie Vidonic (12.4) and Blake transfer Cheryl Bryant (11.8). Bryant is second in the county in assists average (7.7).
The Lancers are the top seed and will face the winner of Citrus Park and Tampa Baptist on Thursday. They likely will have to defeat host Seffner Christian, which they have beaten by 30 and 26 points this season, in the final to capture their seventh district crown.
FREEDOM: The Patriots (25-0) feature five starting seniors - Tandra Faulkner, Brianna Nelson, Whitney Jennings, Charkia Harvey and Morgan Farrington - who have been together four years.
Armwood appears to pose the toughest threat in Class 5A, District 8 and beyond that in the region lurk Lake Gibson and Winter Haven, which last year defeated Freedom 76-42 in the regionals, the Patriots' worst loss in two years.
Should Freedom survive regionals, it might have the best shot among local teams at winning a state title, something no County girls basketball team has done in 10 years, the last being Academy of the Holy Names.
RIVERVIEW: The Sharks won their first 16 games and were ranked No. 1 in Class 6A before dropping two games to Pinellas teams (Largo 64-38 and Seminole 54-46) at the Roundball Showcase in Sarasota. Riverview has since rebounded with two straight victories.
Ashley Milian leads Riverview with 17.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a game for the No. 6 team in Class 6A. Belle Benitez is third in the county in assists at 6.9.
Riverview went undefeated in District 8 and is the No. 1 seed and host school for the district tournament. A championship likely will require defeating Sarasota and/or Sarasota-Riverview again. The Sharks edged both teams this season. The victory over Sarasota-Riverview was the first ever over the Rams.
rr - SCOTT PURKS, Times staff writer, BRYAN BURNS, Times correspondent