TAMPA — There’s little doubt that Jefferson is the most surprising boys basketball team in the Hillsborough County this season.
The Dragons (10-3) have as many wins as their past two seasons combined and are on track to capture a playoff berth for the first time since 2006.
But in the opening round of the 12th City of Tampa Championship on Friday, Jefferson’s feel-good story was temporarily halted by Plant (10-4), which forced multiple miscues — including nine first-half turnovers — in a 52-40 triumph at Tampa Prep.
“It was not an easy first-round draw with Jefferson at all,” said Plant coach Michael Slonaker, whose team faces Tampa Catholic in tonight’s semifinals at 6:30.
“They are a very, very good basketball team. We probably got a little lucky tonight because when they get hot, they’re a different animal.”
Jefferson’s bench buzzed with excitement before the game and through the first quarter. But that enthusiasm soon gave way to groans of frustration from second-year coach Eric Hayes as shots stopped falling.
After trailing by one point after eight minutes, the Dragons were outscored 11-4 in the second quarter thanks to just one field goal in the quarter with 22.6 seconds to play.
“We just didn’t come out and play our game from the beginning,” Hayes said. “Plant played a zone defense, they extended our offense out and we weren’t aggressive.
“We didn’t play smart.”
Though it was never able to string together a consistent run, Plant still found extra breathing room in the second half and led by as much as 13 points to thwart any chance of a comeback.
Plant’s 6-foot-9 center Tyler Beale had a team-high 16 points. For Jefferson, Vernon Jackson also had 16.
“We were a very frustrated team offensively tonight, but it didn’t affect our defense,” Slonaker said. “That’s what won us this game. We just locked-in and contested their shots.”
In the second game, TC (8-1) shook off a poor start to cruise past Hillsborough 81-35 to earn a semifinal berth.
The Terriers (4-9) jumped to a 6-0 lead to open the first quarter, but the Crusaders quickly regrouped to outscore their opponent 54-17 by halftime and force a running clock for the remainder of the game.
Senior forward Chivarsky Corbett had a game-high 31 points, which included two dunks and a 3-pointer.
In other action, Robinson overcame a third-quarter deficit to knock off Middleton 48-45 and Tampa Prep easily defeated Blake 53-38.