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Ribault Girls Cruise

April 2, 2016
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Ribault Girls Cruise to National Hoops Title

Ribault is bringing a big trophy and a whole lot of respect back to Winton Drive.

City champs, state champs, and now, the best girls basketball team in the nation.

The Trojans won their first season-ending national championship on Saturday morning, crushing Riverdale Baptist (Mary.) 75-49 in the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ribault, overlooked from a national viewpoint for years, patiently waited for its opportunity on the national stage.

That time finally arrived, and with a vengeance, for coach Shelia Seymore-Pennick and Ribault.

There was no chance that the Trojans, ranked No. 12 in the country by USA Today, were going to let this opportunity out of their grasp.

“So many pieces, so many intangibles had to come together for this,” Seymore-Pennick said. “I’m happy for my kids. Happy for my staff. I’ve been tough to live with these last few weeks [preparing for this tournament]. I just wanted us to have this feeling.”

Ribault (30-1), seeded third in the four-team event, hammered two-time champion and top-seeded Riverdale for the final three quarters. It took the lead for good just two and a half minutes into the game and widened it the rest of the way.

The Trojans turned the showcase event into a glimpse of what the rest of the country has been missing all these years.

“It was big because a lot of people think we’re so good because there’s no competition in Jacksonville,” Ribault’s Rennia Davis said. “This shows that we can compete at any level. It’s been crazy. My phone has just been blowing up left and right. But I just want to say thank you, honestly. For us to be in this position is special.”

Ribault players said that they felt the outpouring of support from across the state, with hundreds of social media posts and congratulatory texts draining their phone batteries dry.

“It’s just something I never expected coming in,” said guard Kayla Rogers, a four-year starter. “We worked so hard for this. Sometimes, we couldn’t even move going into the locker room [from practicing so hard]. At the end, when we were hugging, I was telling them I was just so glad I played with them this season and the years before.”

Ribault’s defense was the difference. The Trojans took over for good in a four-minute block before half, smothering Riverdale and using bang-bang plays to push the game out of reach. They forced 20 turnovers, many of those in quick bursts that resulted in baskets.

The Crusaders, ranked fourth in the nation, managed three baskets in the quarter and stalled, as a one-point game at one stretch turned into a 29-15 Ribault lead at the break on a 3-pointer by Praise Russell. Davis had 23 points and eight rebounds. DayNeshia Banks added a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), and Nola Carter had a season-high 15 points. Russell added 11 for the Trojans.

Ribault contained McDonald’s All-American wing Kaila Charles, a five-star headed to Maryland, for the most important parts of the game. She finished with 14 points, most of those with the game out of reach in the second half, and fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. By then, it there was no question about the outcome.

“We have a pretty similar team as far as player to player,” Davis said. “We push the ball like them. We play fast like them. We press like them. I just think we executed better offensively and defensively.”

The Trojans crushed Orlando Bishop Moore to win the Class 5A state championship in late February, its state-record-upping 11th. The invitation to the Dick’s Nationals came two and a half weeks later in a milestone moment for Seymore-Pennick and the Trojans.

For as storied as Ribault’s tradition has been, the Trojans had been involved with just three national events before this week, all the way back in 2001-02 and then 2003, coming under coach Al Austin. Ribault won the two national holiday tournaments in 2001 — the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix on Dec. 22 and the Nike Invitational Peach State Holiday Classic in Atlanta on Dec. 29. It lost its last national marquee game in 2003.

Then came this week.

The Trojans beat 10th -ranked Seton Catholic Prep (Ariz.) 49-41 on Friday to earn their spot in the title game. They were the only public school team among the four national semifinalist.

“Not knowing that it’s going to come [a national tournament berth], nobody knows if you’ll get into something like this,” Seymore-Pennick said. “Praying it would come, and it did. When we got here and seeing the other teams, I thought we had [what they had], too.”

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