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TAMPA - Academy of the Holy Names coach Casey Higgins wears a T-shirt to practice that reads "finish" on the back.
No doubt, the bitterness of a number of close losses - especially the four, by an average of six points, to rival St. Petersburg Catholic - in an otherwise remarkable 2005-06 season is still fresh on the minds of this talented, veteran Jaguars' squad.
"In the past, we haven't finished games," said Higgins, the fourth-year coach. "We lost eight games last year, and in seven of the eight we were either leading at halftime or leading going into the fourth quarter."
The responsibility for closing out games for AHN, which went 22-8 and was region runnerup last season, will fall on the shoulders of identical twin guards Catriana and Gianna Messina.
The Messinas have garnered numerous accolades during their prep career - Gianna was named Times' player of the year and first-team all-state after averaging 21 points and eight rebounds a game, Catriana led the county in assists and was a Times first-team performer.
But they're still searching for an elusive district title, one the Jaguars lost to SPC each of the past three years.
"We really want to capture districts this year," Gianna said. "It's definitely the first goal on our list."
But with Academy's lineup, it would be hard to believe it's the last.
It all starts with Gianna, a USF commitment and the early favorite for the county scoring title.
"Gi, she can score almost whenever she wants," Higgins said. "We depend on her when the game's tight."
The 5-foot-5 guard is quick to take the role of go-to player.
"I do feel a little more pressure this year because there's a lot riding on my shoulders," she said. "But, I put a lot of pressure on myself, too."
Catriana, a strong passer who signed to play at the University of Tampa next season, will be asked to carry more of the scoring load after the graduation of Dana Esposito and Kristina Darby, who combined for 21 points a game last season.
"Catri is a very good distributor," Higgins said. "Her scoring last year took a back seat. But, over the summer she's gotten a lot quicker and developed her shot. ... She's looking for her shot more this year."
Plus, having played with Gianna since age 8, Catriana knows how to get the ball in her sister's hands.
"When you've been together with someone a long time, you learn how they play," Catriana said. "Sometimes I don't even have to look to see where she is on the court. I can pass the ball, and I know she'll be there."
After scoring 27 and 17 points, respectively, through Academy's first three victories this season, Gianna and Catriana seem to be picking up right where they left off last season.
"They're both great leaders," Higgins said of the three-year captains. "They just work so hard, and the younger players see that. That's something that you really can't coach. It comes from within."
They also have Academy positioned as one of the early favorites in Class 3A despite fielding a small, guard-dominated lineup with no player taller than 5-7.
"I think this year, we're a lot quicker and more disciplined," Higgins said. We have great team chemistry - I think that's our biggest asset this year. ... It's a cohesive group of girls that don't have a lot of distractions."
Players to watch
Player, school; Pos.; Yr.; Comment
Catriana Messina, Holy Names; G; Sr.; Led the county at 7.9 assists per game.
Gianna Messina, Holy Names; G; Sr.; The 2005 Times player of the year for county.
Paris Moore, Bloomingdale; G; Jr.; Explosive speed and excellent finishing skills.
Michelle Taylor, Plant; G; Fr.; The left-handed point guard “looks more like a freshman in college,” her coach says.
Ayala Wasser, Tampa Prep; G; So.; Averaged more than 17 points as freshman. Robyn Williams, Blake; G; Sr.; Yellow Jackets’ top scorer and passer last season.
Ashley Milian, Riverview; F; Sr.; Had 17.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg for 21-4 Sharks last season.
Chanele Patton, Blake; F; Sr.; Averaged a double double last season.
Samara Shepherd, King; F; Jr.; Silky-smooth, athletic forward with great potential.
Top five teams
Academy of the Holy Names: The Messina twins make Academy the team to beat in Hillsborough County.
Riverview: A 55-34 loss to Orlando Boone in the 6A region semifinals last season was not the ending the Sharks had in mind after opening with 16 consecutive victories.
Blake: After leading Jackets to last season’s Class 5A, District 10 championship, Williams and Patton are poised to take a strong Yellow Jackets squad even farther.
Plant: With Taylor creating at the point and two-guard Kiersten Hanna shooting, look for the Panthers to rebound after a disappointing 2005-06 season. King: An early seven-point victory against Freedom and one-point overtime loss to Blake so far has the Lions looking like a contender. Others to watch: Bloomingdale, Freedom, Hillsborough, Sickles.