After faltering midseason, Gecarri Freeman and Jon Brown hold Tampa together.
The outlook, to say the least, was bleak the last week of February.
Tampa, after a regular-season-ending loss and first-round exit from the Sunshine State Conference men's tournament, learned it would be taking a more difficult road through the NCAA Division II South Region tournament than expected, as the third seed, without a first-round bye.
But that was when the Spartans' emotional leader, Gecarri Freeman, and unsung hero Jon Brown took over. Largely because of Freeman's fire and Brown's steadiness, the Spartans swept through the region and are in the Elite Eight for the first time.
Tampa faces Adelphi, N.Y., at 5:30 today in Bakersfield, Calif.
"I can't say enough about the way these kids have played," Tampa coach Richard Schmidt said after leading the Spartans to their first region championship in eight attempts. "As coaches we're really pleased with how they've responded. We give them a lot of credit."
Especially after losing leading scorer and rebounder Percy White to academic ineligibility the first week of January.
The Spartans had cruised to a 12-1 start and the top ranking in the South Region, but without White lost three of the next seven games, all in conference play. They dropped to the middle of the league standings and were searching for answers.
Starters Slyvere Bryan, Chuckie Powell and James Mereus, along with sixth man Elijah Powell, rebounded with solid play, but Freeman and Brown have proven invaluable.
"I got on the guys a little bit," Schmidt said. "I got on Jon because we know he wasn't playing his best earlier this year. He's the best guard in our conference, maybe in the country, and he stepped it up in the regional tournament."
After averaging 10 points and two rebounds during the regular season, Brown upped those numbers with 49 points and 12 rebounds during region tournament wins against Kentucky State, Eckerd and Henderson State. He was key in the title-clinching game against Henderson State with two three-pointers and a steal during a late rally that led to the Spartans' 60-51 win.
"When we fell behind against Henderson, we knew we just weren't playing like we should have been," said Brown, a 6-foot-1 junior guard. "Plus we felt like we had lost some games we shouldn't have coming into the tournament."
Freeman, a 6-4 junior forward who averaged 13 points during the regular season, scored 18 against Kentucky State, playing the second half with a sprained ankle. He had eight rebounds in the second-round win against Eckerd.
"We knew what we had to do here," Freeman said. "It was just a matter of coming out here and getting it done."
The Spartans face the top team in Division II. Adelphi is 31-0, N.Y. Collegiate Athletic Conference and Northeast Region champion, and it has Division II Player of the Year Ryan McCormack and Coach of the Year Jim Ferry.
A daunting task?
Not so, say the Spartans.
"We expected to be there (in the Elite Eight)," Brown said. "I know I did. I expected to be in California. I believed we have what it takes and I still do."