LAKELAND — Two years ago, Seffner Christian made its first state semifinal appearance. The experience was new to everyone at the school.
It was too much to overcome in a loss to eventual state champion Westminster Academy.
On Wednesday, the Crusaders made it back.
This time, things were supposed to be different. Sure, Seffner Christian had nine sophomores on the roster, but there are some holdovers from the team’s last trip to Lakeland. And Seffner Christian coach Sam Moorer had a better idea of what to expect.
That knowledge paid off in a 68-59 victory over Riviera Prep in the Class 4A semifinals.
“If anything, what being here before taught was to just shut up and let these guys play,” Moorer said. “I tried to do too much as a coach (the last time). I just had to let them go out and enjoy the experience.”
Still, Moorer did everything he could to prepare. Earlier this week, he took his team to USF’s Yuengling Center for a two-hour practice in order to get acclimated to the vastness of Lakeland’s RP Funding Center.
“We shot a lot of 3-pointers at USF to get ready,” Moorer said.
There was something else working in Moorer’s favor. His team actually had the more experienced roster despite having so many underclassmen.
The Bulldogs (20-11) were playing in Lakeland for the first time. Their starting lineup included an eighth-grader, a freshman and a sophomore.
In the first quarter, the Crusaders (25-6) showed no jitters. Willie Jones was efficient around the basket, scoring 13 points, highlighted by a breakaway dunk, to help Seffner Christian take a 22-11 lead.
The Bulldogs chipped away at the lead, cutting it to 31-27 at the half. Riviera Prep then went on a 10-2 run at the start of the third quarter to take a 47-43 lead.
The Crusaders never panicked. They regained control, getting the ball to their playmakers such as Jones and Mike Trigg. And the shots that were just clinging off the rim in the second quarter and early in the third started to fall.
Early in the fourth quarter, Trigg stepped back and hit a 3-pointer to give Seffner Christian a 45-44 lead.
The Crusaders never relinquished it, going up by as many as double digits as the final seconds ticked away.
Jones finished with 23 points and Trigg and Cornelius Bobo each added 15.
Bobo, one of three seniors on the team, was here the last time Seffner Christian lost in its first semifinal appearance.
“To have this chance to play in the final is unbelievable,” Bobo said. “I remember being here the last time and going to the locker room and knowing that I wasn’t able to do anything. I’ve just been working as hard as I could the last two years to make it back it."
With the win, the Crusaders’ boys basketball program takes another significant step by playing in its first state title game.
Better still, Seffner Christian gets a rematch against the two-time defending state champion Lions.
“We didn’t really talk about that before today,” Moorer said of the rematch. “But I wanted these guys to have that opportunity, and we got it.”