TAMPA — The Tampa Catholic girls basketball team’s season was on the brink.
The defending Class 3A state champs began the season 3-4, and on this Dec. 11 night were down nine on the road at Sarasota High School. That’s when Crusaders coach Nancy Kroll got brutally honest with her team at halftime.
“It was a horrible half,” senior guard Meghan Keough said. “She told us that we had yet to beat a quality team. When she left, we were all just kind of stunned. I think it set in that we were complacent. After that our whole attitude changed.
“We kind of took offense to it. That’s what a good coach does. She knows how to push your buttons.”
The Crusaders closed out the 6A Sailors with a 21-3 fourth quarter for a nine-point win.
And no one has been able to keep up with Tampa Catholic since.
The Crusaders enter Wednesday’s Class 3A state tournament riding a 23-game win streak. Tampa Catholic (26-4) hasn’t lost since Dec. 4 to Orlando Bishop Moore, a team the Crusaders beat last season at the Lakeland Center to win the state crown.
“Last year was amazing and everything, but I feel like if we won this year, it would be a million times bigger an achievement, because this year we came into it and people doubted us,” said Keough, who transferred from Land O’Lakes before her junior year. “Even ourselves, we didn’t have the faith we needed at the beginning of the season.”
Tampa Catholic can also become the first Hillsborough County girls basketball team to win back-to-back state titles — and the first bay area team with consecutive state crowns since Boca Ciega in 1995 and ’96.
With their third straight trip to state — the Crusaders face Port Orange Atlantic on Wednesday night — the Crusaders have arguably become the county’s top program.
Tampa Catholic had to replace a pair of 1,000-point scorers, who have gone on to play in college, in Colette Eule (Air Force) and Sarah Brennan (University of Tampa).
But this year’s team might be more built for Kroll’s fast-paced game, which uses a press defense to create offense in transition.
Keough, a UCF recruit who averages 20.9 points, leads the Crusaders’ frenetic pace. But three other Tampa Catholic starters — Kai Jones, Micah Kroll and Britany Betts — each average double figures.
They also average at least 32 percent from 3-point range, the biggest difference between this year’s Tampa Catholic team and last year’s. Kroll, Keough and Betts are among the top nine 3-point shooters in Class 3A. As a team, the Crusaders have made 174 3-pointers.
“Even if I don’t shoot, I feel like there are other 3-point shooters who can shoot,” said Micah Kroll, who is 52 percent from beyond the arc.
The formula works well for the Crusaders, who don’t have a player over 5-foot-10.
“The kids have to buy into it,” Nancy Kroll said. “I look at opponents’ scores and it’s 40-30, and years ago we decided that win or lose, it’s more fun to run and score baskets. I usually don’t have the height to play. We’re a little bit smaller but we’re faster.”
From their hot pink shoelaces, which they’ve worn since a win over Plant five weeks ago, to their kneepads, which Kroll demanded players wear since she lost a scrappy game to a team that wore them in the playoffs while she coached at Freedom, the Crusaders come to Lakeland confident, ready to do anything to make history.
“We wanted to prove people wrong,” Keough said. “That was our motivation during the year, but we’ve been to Lakeland. We know what it feels to win and we wanted that bad. But I think people were telling us it wasn’t going to happen this year.”
State girls basketball
All games at the Lakeland Center. Admission is $9 per session; parking is $7 per day. All finals on BHSN
A: Trinity Christian vs. Seffner Christian, 10 a.m. Wednesday
3A: Atlantic vs. Tampa Catholic, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
4A: Leesburg vs. Lakewood, 10 a.m. Friday
5A: Winter Haven vs. Sickles, 7 p.m. Friday
On the Web
We’ll be covering the games involving local teams live on the Web at tampabay.com/hometeam