LAKELAND — On this year’s run to the state tournament, Tampa Catholic has relied on the 3-pointer to compensate for its lack of size. And with no starter taller than 5-foot-10, the Crusaders came to the Lakeland Center with a trio that shot nearly a combined 40 percent from behind the arc.
But when those shots weren’t falling early in the Crusaders’ Class 3A state semifinal against Port Orange Atlantic on Wednesday night, it didn’t look good for Tampa Catholic’s chances of becoming Hillsborough County’s first girls basketball team to win back-to-back state titles.
Down by 10 after one quarter, Tampa Catholic coach Nancy Kroll stuck to the plan — and told her players to keep shooting, resulting in a 68-58 victory.
It didn’t matter that Atlantic 6-2 sophomore Ronni Williams was having her way inside and had a double double 12 minutes into the game, or that TC was being outrebounded 28-13 at the half.
“Just go out there and play your game and keep running,” Kroll told her team. “Keep shooting. That’s what we do. We’re good at it.”
And after trimming the Sharks’ lead to three at the half, the Crusaders took control early in the second half, putting together a 10-2 run book-ended by 3s by Micah Kroll and Meghan Keough to take their first lead then run away late.
“The momentum totally changed,” said Keough, who led the Crusaders with 23 points. “We had to calm ourselves down and think about the little tiny things we were missing.”
The Crusaders, who extended their win streak to 24 games, can become the Tampa Bay area’s first back-to-back girls basketball state champion in 15 years, when Boca Ciega won 5A titles in 1995 and ’96.
On Wednesday, the Crusaders (27-4) started a chilly 1-for-6 from 3-point range and shot just 28.5 percent from the field in the first half.
“We were a little timid in the beginning,” Keough said. “I think that happens in big games like this. It’s hard to come out with that much fire, but even in the second quarter but definitely in the second half, going to the basket I was stronger with the ball.”
Junior Kai Jones (20 points) helped hold Williams, who led the Sharks with 23 points and 19 rebounds, to six points in the second half.
“I had to rough her up a bit,” Jones said.
Atlantic hung around and trailed by two at 57-55 until Kroll (20 points) hit a 3-pointer with just less than two minutes left. The Crusaders made only six 3s, but they were all critical.
“Those were the six that killed us,” Atlantic coach George Butts said. “We talked about not letting them get the 3-point shot. Defensively, we didn’t do it.”
Tampa Catholic closed the game by converting 10-of-12 free throws down the stretch.