LAKELAND — As Kevin Knox stepped onto the Lakeland Center court, he was greeted by chants of "overrated."
Knox, a five-star recruit, responded the only way he knew how. He kept shooting, from all over the court and from every angle.
By the time Knox stepped off the court with two minutes remaining, he had scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a virtuoso performance that helped the Crusaders cruise to a 92-67 win over the Villages in the Class 5A state semifinals.
Tampa Catholic (25-5) faces Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian in Saturday's title game. It is the first time Tampa Catholic will play in a championship game since 1995, the year the Crusaders won the program's only state title.
From the start, Knox, a 6-foot-8 forward, dominated. He threw down emphatic dunks. He stepped back and hit NBA-range 3-pointers. He knocked down free throws.
His 40 points matched his season high. His 20 rebounds tied a career high. Better still, he did it all with North Carolina coach Roy Williams in attendance to watch the prized recruit.
Knox's efficiency? 13-of-17 from the field, 7-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-8 in free throws. His teammates were accurate, too, hitting 44 percent of their 3-pointers (15-of-34).
"Kevin Knox was unbelievable," Villages coach Colt McDowell said. "We just played against the best player in the state and we had no answer for him."
That shooting touch from the outside was a significant improvement from last season when the Crusaders were 5-of-32 from 3-point range in a loss to Jacksonville Bolles in the state semifinals.
The experience of playing in a state semifinal before and knowing what it was like to play in an arena as big as the Lakeland Center paid dividends for Tampa Catholic.
"We really shot well," Crusaders coach Don Dziagwa said. "Sometimes you hear things about the troubles of playing in a big arena like this, but they realize the basket still is the same height. The guys felt good about where they were. They knew the situation and the surroundings and how bad they felt after last year's game and didn't want that to happen again."
The Buffalo (30-3), meanwhile, had never won a playoff game before this season and was starting a freshman, three sophomores and a junior.
Another big advantage was height, particularly for Knox, who was at least 3 inches taller than anyone else for the Villages.
Towering above his opponents, Knox was able to snag the few errant shots his teammates had. On offense, Knox could not be stopped. He closed out the first quarter with a dunk and a 3-pointer to give him 15 points. After hitting that buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Knox put his index finger to his lips, a gesture to silence the crowd.
He continued to pile up the points, finishing the first half with 18 as he helped the Crusaders go ahead 45-31.
He started the second half with a dunk, then hit another long-range 3-pointer. By then, the rout was on.
"This was probably one of my better games of the year," Knox said. "I was hitting everything. I was fire."
It was not just Knox. Eight players scored, including two others in double figures — Tim Carter (14 points) and Josey Davis (12). Even Knox's younger brother, Kobe, a freshman who moved up from junior varsity, got in late and finished with seven points.
Knox stayed at Tampa Catholic this season rather than play at Montverde or IMG, in part so he could play with his younger brother. But the biggest factor for returning was to win state.
Now, Knox is one game away.