LAKELAND — With Kobe Knox pushing the ball upcourt, Marcellus Crutchfield and Alijah Harrison flourishing on the outside, and Johni Broome beating opposing centers down the floor for easy buckets, Tampa Catholic has turned every possession into a track meet.
In fact, the Crusaders' up-tempo game is running so well that defenders might as well be folding chairs for all the opposition they have presented.
Tampa Catholic's frenzied pace is a big reason it has won 15 straight games since returning from the holiday break. In the past three weeks, the Crusaders have been dominant, winning all six in that stretch by 20 or more points to reach the state semifinals for the fifth straight season.
Opponents often find Tampa Catholic’s go-go offense difficult to handle. That was not the case in Thursday’s Class 4A semifinal.
Orlando Lake Highland Prep had all the necessary intangibles to keep up: height, athleticism, shooting accuracy. For two quarters, the game was tight. At the half, the Highlanders even held a 37-32 lead.
But the Crusaders had one key factor that proved to be the difference: experience.
All five of Tampa Catholic’s starters are seniors, including four who played at the varsity level since they were freshmen. That quartet has been to the state semifinals every season of their high school careers.
There was no getting flustered, no panic at facing a halftime deficit. The veterans knew what to do. They turned up the intensity. They stayed composed. They made all the right moves.
And they won 65-54 to move on to Saturday’s final. The Crusaders (26-5) will face Fort Lauderdale Stranahan (23-9) with a chance to win the school’s first state title since 1995.
“They started five seniors and this was the fourth trip in a row for most of them,” Lake Highland Prep coach Benjamin Fratrik said. “I told my guys at the half, they were going to hold on to this game with a death grip. Give them credit. They were well-prepared. They played hard. For those seniors, this mattered. They were not going to be denied.”
Tampa Catholic coach Don Dziagwa knew he had the necessary elements for success. A mature team motivated to not only return to the semifinals but to end years of frustrating results on basketball’s biggest stage by winning it all.
Still, Dziagwa needed a barometer to gauge the progress of his star-studded team. So he put together a brutal schedule that yielded few easy nights. The Crusaders thrived in those difficult situations. They took national powerhouse IMG Academy to double overtime before losing and beat Huntington Prep, which boasted five players who had already signed or committed to major Division-I programs.
That prepared Tampa Catholic for this stage.
“The schedule helped immensely,” Dziagwa said. “We know what it’s like to play against top-caliber players. It certainly played out today. We put that tough schedule together for them so they would be ready for games like this. So maybe you’re down at the half, but you know the teams you’ve gone up against, how good they are, and been able to play with them. So we felt like we were always kind of in it.”
In the third quarter, the Crusaders took control. A two-handed dunk by Johni Broome (22 points, 12 rebounds) put the Crusaders ahead for good 33-32. Everything started coming together. The defensive pressure intensified. The transition game flowed. Points came in bunches. Two others, Marcellus Crutchfield (16 points) and Kobe Knox (13), each reached double figures in scoring.
“We picked up our energy, especially on the defensive end,” Crutchfield said. “We created turnovers, and that carried over to our offense.”
For the remainder of Thursday’s game, seniority ruled.
“These guys are not new to this,” Dziagwa said. “Our goal was always to get back here, but I think for this group it was not just to get back but to do something while we’re here.”
State boys basketball final
At RP Funding Center, Lakeland; admission $13, parking $10
Class 4A: Tampa Catholic vs. Fort Lauderdale Stranahan, 12:30 Saturday