TAMPA — The three-peat is complete.
Tampa Catholic used the same scenario Friday to punch its third consecutive ticket to the state final four: Get West Palm Beach Oxbridge Academy on the same court in the same game, and walk away with the same result.
For the third time in a row, the Crusaders defeated the ThunderWolves by single digits in a region final, winning 68-63 in the Class 5A boys basketball playoffs.
Tampa Catholic (26-5), a team with six sophomores on its 11-player roster, takes its eight-game win streak to Lakeland for a Wednesday state semifinal contest against Fort Lauderdale University or Miami Washington.
"This is the third (state tournament) in a row for us. … That’s unbelievable," Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa said. "This is a special group of guys. Everybody thought that when we lost Kevin Knox (now at Kentucky) that we were going to drop off.
"We have six sophomores, and even I was wondering how are they going to handle the tough schedule that we have. … and here we are going back to the final four."
Oxbridge (20-9) brought plenty of momentum despite a traffic-delayed 4˝-hour ride. The ThunderWolves had won their past nine games and 14 of 15. They scored nine of the game’s first 11 points as Tampa Catholic missed its first nine shots.
But the Crusaders went into the locker room tied at 26 when Marcellus Crutchfield banked in a 3-pointer from straightaway at the halftime buzzer. That was one of 10 shots that Tampa Catholic would make in 14 tries during a span that carried into the pivotal third quarter.
Tied at 31, a Tim Carter layup ignited a 9-0 Crusader burst that put Tampa Catholic ahead for good. The Crusaders forced nine turnovers in the third quarter after Oxbridge gave the ball away only eight times in the first half.
Tampa Catholic built the lead to 47-35 late in the third quarter, but the ThunderWolves would battle back to cut the deficit to three points on three occasions — the final time at 66-63 on an A.J. Cajuste 3-pointer with 8.1 seconds remaining. But the Crusaders nailed down an eighth state berth in school history with the final two of 25 made free throws in the second half. Tampa Catholic shot 33 foul shots and, like Oxbridge, didn’t shoot from the charity stripe before intermission.
"We did mention to them at halftime, ‘Look, one of our team goals every game is to shoot more free throws than the other team, ’?’’ Dziagwa said. "We go the whole half and nobody’s shooting any free throws. What is the deal? Isn’t that amazing? How do you have a regional final and nobody shoot a free throw in a whole half of a game with two pretty athletic teams going head to head with each other?"
The Crusaders missed all 10 field-goal tries in the fourth quarter, and their final 12 shots in the game.
"We really came out good in the third quarter," Dziagwa said. "Oxbridge is such a good team. We have a 10-point lead, then all of a sudden I look up and we’re only up by three.
"We really did some things defensively pretty well, and held them (Oxbridge) to 63 points. We didn’t score what we normally would liked to have scored, but we know we’re going to have to grind out some games somewhere along the line. This was one of them."
Carter led Tampa Catholic with 19 points. Messiah Turner added 14, Alijah Harrison 12 and Kobe Knox 11.
Jack Meyers had 20 points for Oxbridge. Cajuste had 12 and Dante Wilcox 11.