State basketball: Tampa Catholic falls to nationally ranked University

Tampa Catholic guard Tim Carter (3) attempts a  jump shot against University High School as Scott Barnes defends.  (GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times)
Tampa Catholic guard Tim Carter (3) attempts a jump shot against University High School as Scott Barnes defends. (GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times)
Published March 7 2018
Updated March 7 2018

LAKELAND — For a brief moment, Tampa Catholic had a glimmer of hope.

The Crusaders went on an 8-1 run midway through the first quarter of Wednesday's Class 5A state semifinal, cutting the deficit against Fort Lauderdale University to three points.

That is as close as Tampa Catholic would get.

The Sharks turned it on after that, cruising to an 83-48 win that was all but over by halftime.

"They're really good," Crusaders coach Don Dziagwa said of University. "We knew they were, but maybe we were a little surprised at just how good they were."

The Sharks (32-1), which won the prestigious City of Palms tournament, are ranked third nationally in MaxPreps' Xcellent 25 writer's poll. University's lone loss was to powerhouse Oak Hill (Va.) Academy in an ESPNU game in January.

Vernon Carey Jr., a 6-foot-10 center who is ranked as the nation's second-best player in the class of 2019 by ESPN, is the Sharks' top player. The talent doesn't end there. University also has Scottie Barnes, a 6-6 forward who is ranked as the nation's fifth-best player in the class of 2020 by ESPN.

So it was not that the Crusaders (26-6) were bad. It was just that the Sharks were so good.

University had more size, more speed and more of most other good things.

Tampa Catholic was willing to mix it up. The Crusaders never quit, despite the lopsided score. But they missed some shots and simply wore down.

With all those pluses on one side and minuses on the other, the game quickly turned in the Sharks' favor.

By halftime, University had a 57-27 lead.

"They run and run and run with a great fastbreak and get a lot of easy baskets," Dziagwa said. "They didn't allow us to really get into what we wanted to do. I hate to say it, for all intents and purposes it was over at the half."

Part of the problem was Tampa Catholic's inability to hit from long range. In last week's region final win over Oxbridge Academy, the Crusaders made 14 3-pointers.

In the first half of Wednesday's state semifinal, they were 0-for-9 and finished with just four 3-pointers. Those errant shots often turned into layups on the other end.

The Sharks shot 75 percent in the first half, most coming on layups and dunks.

"University ran the floor really well," said Tampa Catholic senior guard Tim Carter, who finished with a team-high 12 points. "We felt like we do, too. They were just better."

Early in the third quarter, University was ahead by 35, triggering a running clock. The Sharks emptied the bench midway through the quarter.

Carey led all scorers with 21 points and had 12 rebounds. The Crusaders had two other players who reached double figures in scoring — Alijah Harrison (11 points) and Kobe Knox (10 points).

Tampa Catholic was playing in its third straight state semifinal, something only six other bay area programs have accomplished.

The Crusaders now will have to take solace in knowing they have a future together, thanks to a roster that included six sophomores, three of whom start.

"The team this year was so great," Dziagwa said. "It didn't end well. We're disappointed. But lo and behold we were in the state semifinals and nobody would have thought that at the beginning of the season.

"We have a great group coming back and they're keeping me young. Today, I aged a little. I just didn't know what to do to help them on the court to make it closer than what it was."

Tampa Catholic guard Marcellus Crutchfield (21) drives to the basket against University’s Logan Alters. (GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times)