TAMPA — With a quick jumper following a Jesuit turnover, Jefferson took a lead in the third quarter of the Class 5A, District 9 boys basketball semifinal. The game was a must-win for advancement to the state playoffs, and the Dragons, despite their losing record, were stating their case to extend their season.
But the Tigers didn’t sweat it; all they had to do was look over at the Jesuit bench for the confidence they needed to turn it around.
“We trust Coach with everything,” senior forward Jack Cooper said about Jesuit coach Neal Goldman. “For us, he’s won every type of game, so we know he’s got the game plan to win ... because he’s won the game already.”
On Tuesday, Goldman’s plan came through for the Tigers yet again. Jesuit dominated the fourth quarter to beat Jefferson 64-49, delivering the veteran coach his 600th varsity win. Goldman, who has been at Jesuit for 32 years, is the second winningest basketball coach in Hillsborough County behind Tampa Prep’s Joe Fenlon (767-304) and fourth all-time in Tampa Bay.
Until the fourth quarter, No. 600 wasn’t exactly guaranteed.
The score was tied after the first, thanks in part to a pair of 3-pointers from Jefferson guard Javonte Solomon, who had a game-high 20 points for the Dragons. Jesuit took a five-point lead into halftime, but Jefferson (8-17) came back from the break even scrappier, causing turnovers and forcing the Tigers to take bad shots.
On back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, Jesuit (21-5) turned the ball over. Both times, Jefferson took it to the other end and made the opportunity count, taking a 32-31 lead.
“Their pressure was just really giving us trouble the whole game,” said Cooper, who led Jesuit in scoring Tuesday with 17 points. “We were turning the ball over a lot. That was basically it. They were getting a lot of points off turnovers.”
Cooper did more than his part to help turn it around. The 6-foot-6 forward was on the boards all night, and he had two big baskets after the Dragons took their lead to make sure they never extended it.
And in the fourth quarter, the Tigers relied on what they do best to bring it home.
“We said No. 1 would be our defense tonight,” Goldman said. “It really let us down early in the game, but we picked it up, got some big stops and played at another level.”
Jesuit — which will face Robinson in the district championship after its 78-62 victory against Spoto in the other semifinal — held Jefferson to 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Tigers, meanwhile, did their part at the free-throw line, making 9 of 12 shots to turn a once-close matchup into a comfortable victory.
Easier wins might be less stressful. But for Goldman, those aren’t the kind that stick out the most during a tenure he was happy to reflect upon after the game.
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“It just seems like a lot of our wins are kind of like this,” said Goldman, giant balloons heralding his benchmark victory floating behind him. “It’s not perfect. You have to fight for everything you get.”