TAMPA — With the Nos. 2-, 7- and ninth-ranked teams waiting for Jesuit High School in the region boys basketball playoffs, coach Neal Goldman prepared his team by working extensively on late-game situations.
Down by two. Up by two.
Inbounding, free-throw shooting, final plays. The clock ticking down.
He told his players that moment might come.
“But if you want to keep winning by 11 or more,” he said, “that’s fine, too.”
Fine it is. Jesuit, 29-1 heading into Friday’s state semifinal against Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, has kept winning this postseason, beating state-ranked opponents in its past three games by 13, 27 and 25 points.
So while Goldman has crafted clutch situations for stars like Devin Harris, Joey Galvis, Jack Fleming and Travis Johnson, he’d prefer they be right where they usually are when the clock is running out.
On the bench, toweling off.
With the exception of the one out-of-state loss — 55-52 to JSerra Catholic in a California tournament where Galvis’ baseline floater to win it with three seconds left “went nine-tenths of the way in before coming out” — the Tigers have answered every test.
They have won 29 games, all by 11 points or more. They have won 20 of them by 20 or more points — and 13 by 30 or more.
And consider: Jesuit played four teams that made region championship games this year, and beat them by 22, 23, 25 and 40 points.
The numbers are dazzling. They are great.
But what makes Jesuit special — maybe as special as any team Tampa Bay has ever witnessed — is its completeness.
Balanced scoring — four scorers with 13 points a game or more — and brilliant defense.
Senior leadership, made up of a point guard able to run an offense and break down a defense, shooters from every spot on the floor, an inside presence in Johnson who is playing his best ball.
Spurred by last year’s loss in the region playoffs to the same Lake Wales team they beat 97-72 Saturday, the Tigers have played almost all season without an off night. While it has practically become a cliche for players to credit “coming together as a team” and “playing for each other,” the Tigers’ chemistry can’t be overstated.
“You can say it all you want and preach it all you want, but the players, they have to make up their mind that they want to play and dominate every game,” Goldman said. “They just decided they were going to do it. It definitely shows, and it’s fun to watch.”
Even when it doesn’t come down to the buzzer.
Tigers have few peers, but these teams make the cut
Three Tampa Bay Times staff writers, with a combined 60 years of experience, have covered this Jesuit team in the playoffs, and each has come away with the same conclusion: This might be Tampa Bay’s best team in decades. Here are five other teams that rank among the most memorable for us in the past 25 years.
Dan Wright had been to the final four four times and never won, but the Spartans were determined to give the coach his first title.
They were 33-2, with one loss coming to the No. 1 team in the country (Los Angeles Westchester, led by current Washington Wizard Trevor Ariza), and the other coming to Lakeland Kathleen, which they avenged in the region championship by 32 points.
Marcus Morrison (South Carolina), Brian Ligon (Butler), Kevin Dorsey and Kory Crumbley came up big in a season filled with big games, beating Glades Central 59-52 in the final.
The Eagles may not be remembered with the greatest teams, but there is no doubting they had one of the greatest seasons ever. And if not for a loss in the state final to Cocoa, which they led by 11 points at halftime, they would have been a brilliant 32-0. No one has come so close to perfection.
Behind mercurial guard Dante Valentine and forwards Isaiah Mason and Dominique Roberson, the Eagles won 27 games by double figures. They won a rousing region final 79-46 on their blue homecourt. They beat the No. 1 team in the state semifinals by 12. It was truly a great lightning bolt season — in 32 previous seasons the baseball, football and basketball teams had combined for two playoff wins — and if not for one bad half, it would have been perfect.
Almost all of the Wildcats’ wins were by double digits in 2007. But they didn’t win a state title, or even a region title. They had the misfortune of meeting one of the best teams in Florida high school history — Lake Howell — in regionals.
Take Jesuit’s dominance this year, and add some protein powder to it. That was the Silver Hawks, led by Houston Rocket Chandler Parsons, Nick Calathes (Florida) and Joey Rodriguez (Virginia Commonwealth).
But Wharton gave Lake Howell its closest game of the season in the 5A region final. Shawn Vanzant (Butler) scored 20 points in the 70-59 loss. Wharton finished 29-2, the best season in school history.
Oh, and Lake Howell? It went on to beat Lakewood at state, 85-42.
Tampa Catholic, 1995
This team may have had more football talent than basketball talent — with Quincy Hipps, Darrell Jackson and Kenny Kelly — and its run at state was as exciting as you can make it.
Otis Kitchen hit a shot at the buzzer for a 67-65 win over No. 1 Port St. Joe in the semifinals, and Jackson led the Crusaders to a 69-67 win over Boca Raton Saint Andrew’s in the final. Their win-loss record won’t impress anyone, but for a squad with double-digit losses to make a run like the Crusaders did says a lot about the talent and leadership.
Gibbs made the final four the two previous seasons, and if any team was ready to win a state title, it was the Gladiators.
Instead, they bowed out early in the playoffs.
Naples used a triangle-and-2 to neutralize Dwight Brown and Bill Teal, and Gibbs fell to No. 1-ranked Naples in their playoff opener.
Gibbs’ only other losses were to Dixie Hollins (an upset that knocked it from No. 1) and Oak Hill, ranked No. 1 in the country.
The high-scoring Gladiators, led by Brown (FSU), Teal (Arkansas) and Pat Lawrence (FSU), often used an “ax to kill a mosquito,” as guard Arian Odom was quoted as saying. But they never got to take a swing at state that year.