For most of her first two years playing basketball at Lake Region High, Tiana-Jo Carter was regarded mainly as an exceptional defender and rebounder. Then came her performance in the Class B state championship game against Presque Isle last year.
All Carter did was score 17 points, grab 14 rebounds and block four shots. The Lakers lost 49-47 in a game that featured eight lead changes and one tie in the final quarter.
Carter, now a 6-foot-2 junior center, proved she was much more than a shot blocker and rebounder. And she took her game to another level this season, attracting the interest of several Division I colleges while leading Lake Region back to the state title game. And again, Presque Isle is the opponent.
Lake Region (19-2) will play the Wildcats (21-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The Wildcats have a 43-game winning streak.
Carter would like nothing better than to repeat her performance from last year.
“I’ve definitely watched that game a fair amount,” she said. “Looking back at it, I saw a lot of good things. It gets me excited. Last year was my first time (in a championship game) and I wanted to come out strong. I’m hoping to do that again.”
Carter averaged 12.1 points, 19.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots in the regular season.
Coach Paul True said he’s seen a more intense focus in the postseason.
“She’s really locked into what she’s doing, what her roles and responsibilities are,” he said. “She has a completely different focus. She realizes what her potential is and she’s just working a little bit harder to maximize her skill set.”
For instance, in the quarterfinals against Freeport, Carter scored 17 points with 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots. In the final against York, she had 14 points and 17 rebounds.
But Carter realizes she isn’t doing this alone. The Lakers have three quick guards — freshman CeCe Hancock, sophomore Sarah Hancock and senior Sydney Hancock — who disrupt offenses with their defensive pressure and knock down dagger 3-pointers.
And then there’s Kelsey Winslow, the Lakers’ senior forward who averages 12 points and almost 10 rebounds.
“There is just so much she does each and every game that gets overlooked,” said Carter. “People see the baskets that others make or the rebounds, but Kelsey does a great job passing the ball, screening for us, a lot of times leading directly to baskets.”
Carter and the 5-10 Winslow push each other daily in practice.
Winslow has an edge in quickness — “She catches me on some of her moves,” said Carter, “but it prepares me for the games.” — but Carter is still a huge obstacle to beat.
“Sometimes if we scrimmage we go against each other and, oh gosh, personally I hate it,” said Winslow, “It’s so difficult to get the ball against her. She has such a height advantage, and she does a great job using her body to get in there and get positioning.”
Presque Isle Coach Jeff Hudson said he wasn’t ready for Carter’s offense last year. But even this season, it isn’t her scoring that concerns him.
“She makes the difference on the defensive end and in getting 20 rebounds a game,” he said. “She’s got to score for them when they go into their half-court set, but her defense is where she makes the biggest difference.”
Carter and Winslow will provide a powerful challenge inside for Presque Isle, which plays primarily with one big player, 5-11 senior center Meredith Stewart.
The Wildcats rely on their guards for much of the offense, trying to push the tempo as much as possible.
True said size shouldn’t matter. “They have kids who can flat-out shoot the ball,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about Presque Isle. They’re well-coached, very quick, and do a lot of scoring in transition or off turnovers.”
Hudson is equally impressed with Lake Region. “I’m worried about our scoring,” he said. “I’ve seen those guys on tape and they don’t give up too many points.”
Both teams entered the season as favorites in their regions. Both have survived three months and 21 games to get here.
“My girls are winners,” said Hudson. “We’ve had that target all year on our back and we’ve responded. Every time we’ve been challenged, we’ve stepped up.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: