Dan PearsonBy:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Almost a year ago to the day, Bishop Moore’s Alyssa Brasko made a stick-back layup with 14 seconds to go.  The shot gave the Hornets a 37-35 win over Gateway and denied the Panthers a regional championship and a first-ever trip to the FHSAA Final Four.

Fast forward one year to Friday night’s FHSAA Region 2 Championship game.  

There would be no such heartbreak and no such drama for the Panthers, as they totally dominated New Port Richey’s River Ridge High School, 69-40, to claim a regional title.  The win puts the Panthers (24-6) into a state semifinal championship game on Thursday against Region 1 winner, Daytona Beach Mainland.

“We’re going to a Final Four, it’s the perfect ending to the perfect night on my final home game,” team captain and Gateway’s lone senior Vanessa Diaz said.  “After last year’s disappointment, I am just so happy for my teammates.”

Gateway Final Four
Gateway Final Four
Gateway High School

Without question, Diaz was the star of the game.  The senior point guard hit six of eight field goal attempts – all from three point range – and then calmly sunk 11 of 12 free throws in scoring a game-high 29 points.

“She followed me over from Neptune Middle School and has been the backbone of our program for the last four years,” Coach Justin Marino said of his star shooting guard who has scored more than 2000 points in her career and has led the Panthers to a 73-34 mark in his four years.  “She is not the biggest player on the floor but she is always the hardest worker.  She is a great leader, tough as nails and her basketball IQ is off the charts.”

“Since my own kid plays on the team, I may get in trouble at home for saying this, but Vanessa is the favorite player that I have ever coached,” Marino added with a grin.

Although she may not be dad’s favorite player, Marino’s daughter – freshman Alyssa Marino – also played a huge role in the Panther rout.  She made two big three pointers in the first quarter and her back-to-back threes to start the second period pushed the Panthers out to a 28-10 lead at the 4:16 mark and forced a quick timeout by River Ridge. Marino would finish with 15 points.

Two separate incidents – one on the floor and one in stands – could have derailed the early Panther momentum.  Gateway, a team with just eight players on the roster of which only six play significant minutes, saw starting forward Karli Cole go down with a knee injury with three minutes to go in the half.  She would not return to the game.

Then with 15 seconds remaining in the half, a large contingent of students from both schools got into a shoving match in the stands—causing an eight minute delay in the game.

But neither the scuffle, which was quickly dealt with by teachers and administrators from both schools, not the Cole injury, would derail the Panthers on this night.

Diaz came out on fire in the third quarter, hitting four consecutive three-pointers and Malayna Stevenson added six of her own, as the Panthers built a 30-point lead after three periods, 57-27.   Stevenson, who finished the game with 16, was unstoppable on the night. On numerous occasions, she would drive the lane which would result in a layup, a foul or a kick out pass to a teammate for an open three.

“Malayna always makes the right decisions,” Marino said.  “We have a reputation of just being able to shoot three pointers, so we always draw a lot of tight man-to-man coverage.  But when that happens, we are not afraid to take the ball inside.  Because of switches, it creates a lot of mismatches that Malayna can take advantage of.”

For the game, Gateway shot 54% overall (21 of 39), but they were a red-hot 63% from beyond the three-point arc (12 of 19).

Thursday 5A semifinal game between the Panthers and Mainland will be the first between the two schools this year.    The two teams have not met in the regular season but have played four common opponents this year in Rockledge, Eau Gallie, Lake Mary, and Deltona.  Mainland has gone 4-0 against those opponents, while the Panthers have gone 5-0 — including two wins over Eau Gallie.