TAMPA — Although her team lost the first meeting at St. Petersburg Catholic by 14 points, Tampa Catholic coach Nancy Kroll knew the outcome of the rematch would be much different.
"We're a much different team now from the first time that we played them," Kroll said before tip-off. "I feel good about this one."
The Crusaders certainly responded.
Tampa Catholic used a dominant first half to jump out on St. Petersburg Catholic, then did enough down the stretch to hold on for a hard-fought 53-48 victory Friday night.
But this game was more than just a big win against a rival. The victory also clinched the Class 3A, District 10 top seed for the Crusaders.
The first quarter proved key as Tampa Catholic came out energized on both ends of the floor. SPC, meanwhile, came out flat. The Barons missed their first eight shots and turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter.
Tampa Catholic led by 11 after the first and took a 35-21 lead into the half. Senior guard Meghan Keough was on fire in the first half, scoring 18 points.
But SPC had no interest in folding.
The Barons went on a 9-0 run to start the second half and continued a strong defensive effort throughout the third quarter to cut the Crusaders' lead to six.
But Tampa Catholic responded with big defensive stops and timely free-throw shooting down the stretch, making all six of their fourth-quarter attempts.
Annie Artise led the Barons with 16 points, while Keough had a game-high 19.
These teams have history. They played each other four times last season, with the final meeting resulting in a four-point region semifinal victory for Tampa Catholic, the defending state champion.
"It's always a tough game when we play St. Pete Catholic," Keough said. "They always play hard and physical.
"We played them four games last year, and I look forward to maybe playing them four times again this year."