TAMPA — Usually midway through the third quarter, Tampa Catholic senior point guard Annie Dziagwa starts noticing the signs.
Opponents are hunched over, hands on their shorts, reaching for water bottles, gasping for air and hoping to do anything to make time slow down.
"You can just sense it," Dziagwa said. "We know they're getting tired and they want to slow the ball down. That's where we have to step it up one more notch to really pound it in."
The Crusaders' unique up-tempo style of play — dictated by fastbreak offense and suffocating pressure defense — has led them to the Class 3A state girls basketball tournament for the first time in school history. Tampa Catholic (28-2) will take an attack that averages 70 points into the Lakeland Center for Wednesday's state semifinal against Miramar Parkway Academy (30-3).
"We've been running since September and haven't stopped since," Dziagwa said.
Their frenetic pace began 20 years ago, when Tampa Catholic coach Nancy Kroll and her late husband, Craig Keeler, arrived at Academy of the Holy Names. Kroll's JV team won just two games that year in 1989.
"We took our lumps, but I think we realized that the kids like playing that up-tempo," Kroll said. "The idea was if you run and press and score baskets, it's more fun than if you play slow-down ball and the game is 30-25."
And Kroll is still a stickler for conditioning. Before the season, her players go outside for 2-mile runs and wind sprints. Inside, practices are simulated games, with water breaks scattered like timeouts. Then there's what the coach and players refer to as "disguised running," like the fullcourt layup drills that fill every practice.
"We know she just wants us to run," said junior center Sarah Brennan, the Crusaders' second-leading scorer with 16.6 points a game. "We're not that naive."
"We're used to it now," said leading scorer Colette Eule, who averages 19.9 points.
Take the 57-44 region final win over Melbourne Central Catholic, when Tampa Catholic ended the third quarter with a 15-0 run full of transition baskets and layups off steals that instantly broke open a close game.
"When you see team after team break down and wear out in the third quarter, you know you're doing something right and you want to keep doing it," Dziagwa said.
Now the Crusaders hope to run away with their first state title.
"I don't think any of us really realized that all of our conditioning would pay off this much," Brennan said. "I definitely didn't."