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Tigers roar to Class 5A title

LAKELAND — On a history-making morning, they made hysteria first.

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Roughly 500 Jesuit High students, two-thirds of the all-male student body, traveled 40 minutes east on a raw, windy Saturday to go hoarse over their top-ranked basketball team.

Collectively dubbed "The Blue Tide," they chanted and cheered, hopped in place and hollered in unison. It was contagious clamor. Eventually during the Class 5A state title game, even the officials were hoisting both arms skyward. Or maybe they were just signaling yet another Tigers 3-pointer.

The team that sparkled all season in its biggest games saved its most dominant and dead-eye performance for its grandest stage inside the Lakeland Center.

Searing from 3-point range (12-for-20) and sturdy underneath, Jesuit jumped ahead early and held strong late en route to a 79-58 victory against Plantation American Heritage (24-7). The victory gave the Tigers their first state crown since 1984.

"Today was all about just being at our best," said coach Neal Goldman, who insisted afterward he will be back for his 27th season with the Tigers.

"The confidence and determination we had today was exactly what I hoped for. I'm just floored with the way they executed today under pressure."

Providing a microcosm of its 31-1 season, Jesuit shot 53.6 percent from the floor, with seniors Jack Fleming and Joey Galvis (tournament MVP) combining for 10 3-pointers.

Defensively, Jesuit held Heritage to its lowest point total since Jan. 25. Inside, 6-foot-4 senior Travis Johnson sparked a pivotal 10-0 run with six of those points, and 6-7 junior Isaiah Omoregie scored 12 off the bench in perhaps his best game as a Tiger.

But Jesuit's long-range proficiency set the tone. The Patriots threw five defensive variations at the Tigers, to no avail. Six minutes into the game, Fleming (game-high 20 points) had four 3s. Four and a half minutes in, Jesuit had a 10-point lead.

"It was almost comical," incredulous Patriots coach Charlie Stephenson said. "It was like, "Golly, who's going to miss?' "

Fleming's pregame sustenance: half a pancake and some water. "I told Jack before he came out, 'You've shot a million shots for this, for today,' " Goldman said. "He put on a clinic there in the first half."

The Tigers put up a collective stand in the second. Switching from a matchup-type zone defense to intense man-to-man, American Heritage opened the second half with an 11-2 run to take a 38-37 lead.

Galvis (16 points, four blocks, three steals) answered with a 3-pointer. It was 40-40 when he drove the lane for a basket and a 42-40 lead. He then made a steal in the backcourt and fed Johnson underneath, who was fouled on his basket. His free throw made it 45-40.

Johnson ended the 10-0 spurt with a baseline 3-pointer, giving Jesuit a 50-40 lead with 2:27 to go in the third. The Patriots never came within eight the rest of the game.

"We just knew we were going to have to make a run because we knew they were going to come back," Galvis said. "I was just able to make the big play, and Travis always finishes well."

So how do the Tigers finish collectively? As perhaps the greatest team in bay area history. Undefeated against Florida competition, Jesuit, which started five seniors, won by double digits in 30 of its 31 victories.

"Just the way they committed to unselfishness and being there for each other makes winning even more special," Goldman said. "They're just winners."

Joey Knight can be reached at knight@tampabay.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.

Tigers roar to Class 5A title 03/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 9:17pm]
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