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Scovel hoping for one last run with Lady Commodores

By Dustin Kent
Gulf Coast head coach Roonie Scovel is certainly no stranger to the state tournament - far from it.

In her 22 years leading the Lady Commodores, she has made it to the postseason every single time, winning 12 state titles and six national titles along the way.

Her 22nd postseason appearance - tipping off Thursday at the 2020 FCSAA State Tournament in Niceville - will be her last after announcing her retirement last week, and the legendary coach hopes that she can end her coaching career where she has spent much of it: at the very top.

“You always want to go out on a good note,” Scovel said. “To qualify for the region tournament and, if we can play well, maybe still have a shot to go to Lubbock (for the national tournament), it would be a good way to go out and you wouldn’t have to leave with a bad taste in your mouth.

“There’s some relief to know that the end is near, but I’m not completely satisfied because it’s not over. I love to compete and I love to win, so I’m just trying to figure out how this team can win the next game.”

That will be no easy task for the No. 6 Lady Commodores (21-4), who will open play against No. 12 Florida Southwestern State (24-6), a team that has pushed them to the brink on two separate occasions already this season.

Gulf Coast had to rally back from 19 points down to beat the Buccaneers 97-89 in overtime on Nov. 2 in Fort Myers, and completed a 20-point comeback thanks to a last-second shot from Ndeye Ciss to win 64-62 a week later.

Playing tough against tough competition has been a regular occurrence for the Buccaneers this season, as all six of their losses have come against ranked teams, with four coming against teams that finished in the top 11 in the final regular season poll.

“Well, they’re awfully talented and obviously we’ve struggled with them both times we’ve played,” Scovel said. “We were fortunate to come out with victories in those games. They’re very talented and hard to match up with. They’ve got great scoring, great athletes, they move the ball well. There’s a reason why they’re conference champions.”

The Lady Commodores aren’t conference champions, but their journey to second place in the Panhandle was pretty impressive nonetheless.

Gulf Coast lost one of its top returners in Nadia Marshall to what turned out to be a season-ending injury before the first game, with top 3-point shooter Laila Grant suffering a season-ending injury in the non-conference schedule.

Starting point guard Lya Farcy and starting power forward Tatiana Jones battled leg and ankle injuries during the Panhandle Conference season, while backup point guard Ra’Shara Simmons missed two games with a concussion and leading scorer Ahlana Smith missed one league game and the majority of another - both losses - with an ankle sprain.

The Lady Commodores still managed to win their last three games of the season to earn both a postseason berth and the respect of their coach.

“I think a good word to describe this team is ‘resilient,’” Scovel said. “Nadia was our defensive stopper and one of the three best athletes on the team ... we go to a tournament in November and lose our most efficient long range shooter Laila Grant ... and then in January (Jones) sprains her ankle and we lose her and that took a long time to heal ... then Ahlana goes down with an ankle at Tallahassee and (Simmons) goes down with a concussion.

“We survive all that and get back and had a flu thing going on that almost made us forfeit a game. But to get through all of that and get back and qualify as runner-up out of the Panhandle was special, and I would certainly say ‘resilient’ was the key word with this group.”

It’s not like this Gulf Coast team has survived on grit and guile alone, however. Smith, a UCLA transfer, is one of the best scorers in the country and is averaging 20.8 points per game for the season.

Another Division-I transfer from Georgia Tech, 6-foot-2 forward D’Asia Gregg has proven to be a versatile offensive weapon, averaging 15.6 points while shooting 36 percent from the 3-point line on over four attempts per game.

The emergence of 6-2 sophomore Naomi Mbandu has been perhaps most important to the Lady Commodores’ title hopes, as she caught fire down the stretch in averaging 24 points over the final four games while making 21 of 43 from the 3-point line.

“It’s huge,” Smith said of Mbandu’s recent scoring surge. “I think her stepping up has brought a lot of confidence to others on the team. We had a few big injuries, but Naomi stepping up gave us a lot of confidence and reassurance that it’s not only me who can do this thing.

“She’s got a lot of talent and I’m glad she’s been able to showcase it.”

While the Lady Commodores do have a great deal of talent, Smith said that’s not what got them this far and it won’t be what gets them to Lubbock, Tex., if they are to get there and make a run at the program’s seventh national championship.

“I just think it’s more mental with us,” she said. “I feel like we have the ability and we have the talent, but that mental toughness is what gets us over the edge. If we want all this and we all know the ceiling is pretty high and we can win a national title, I feel like everybody has to be on the same page.

“You put all the distractions with the injuries and that stuff aside and look at the bigger picture. If you want to win a national title, you’ve got to push through.”

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