LAKELAND — Don Dziagwa had it all figured out. The Tampa Catholic boys basketball coach booked a flight months ago to see his son, Thomas, play the final regular-season game of his Oklahoma State career on Saturday.
Trouble was, the Crusaders were set to play in the Class 4A state championship game. Dziagwa explained his predicament to the airline. The tickets were not refundable.
While Dziagwa could not foresee the scheduling conflict, the longtime Tampa Catholic coach did anticipate his team playing for a title. After all, the Crusaders have a veteran team with five senior starters, nearly all of whom have been to the state semifinals every season of their high school careers.
They were trying to end their state finishes of woe by winning the school’s first basketball title since 1995. But it was another frustrating result with a 71-64 loss to Fort Lauderdale Stranahan.
Afterward, the players buried their heads in their hands or covered them with hoodies, all trying to figure out why they had come up short on basketball’s biggest stage — again.
“For any of you who have been here the past five years, just duplicate my speech from five years ago, four years ago, three years ago....” Dziagwa said in Saturday’s news conference after wrapping up the program’s fifth straight state tournament appearance. “It just didn’t end the way we wanted it.”
Everyone at Tampa Catholic, present and past, anticipated this moment. The school had a pep rally Friday attended by nearly the entire student body. Parents traveled as far away as Texas to be in Lakeland for the game. The players from the 1995 team kept close tabs on social media accounts or watched via live stream.
The title squad from 25 years ago featured eight players, some of whom went on to play college basketball, such as Otis Kitchen II (Florida Atlantic) or embark on professional careers in other sports, such as Kenny Kelly (Devil Rays) and Darrell Jackson (Seattle Seahawks). The group got together for a 20-year reunion when they entered into the school’s hall of fame.
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They were trying to figure out another reunion this year, maybe to celebrate another title. In the first half, it appeared as if that would happen.
Johni Broome, a 6-foot-9 forward, formed a veritable wall as the Crusaders’ last line of defense. The few times the Mighty Dragons dared to enter the lane, they were greeted by his long arms that usually swatted their shots into orbit.
In fact, Broome became so much of an inside force, opposing playmakers often became passive when he was near. Broome finished the half with 10 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots.
Tampa Catholic pushed the ball upcourt at a frenzied pace. Inside shots, outside jumpers. They all kept falling. And it was not just Broome. The Crusaders had seven players who scored in the first half, the kind of balance that helped Tampa Catholic build a 38-29 lead.
Then the momentum, the lead, and ultimately the game started to slip away.
Foul trouble plagued the Crusaders. Kobe Knox picked up his fourth foul, and Broome and Marcellus Crutchfield each had three midway through the third quarter.
After initially struggling on offense, Stranahan found its rhythm. The defense also was relentless. Everyone contributed. Tampa Catholic, meanwhile, could not get too many shots to fall. In the second half, the Crusaders were 1-of-13 from 3-point range.
By the end of third quarter, the Mighty Dragons led 51-48 and maintained control the rest of the way.
“I thought their defense did a really good job of slowing us down,” Dziagwa said. “We weren’t able to get the ball out much on our fastbreak. There were no easy buckets.”
Broome finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Knox had 14 points and Alijah Harrison added 10 points.
“It’s a big accomplishment to do this so often,” Knox said. “We work hard. That’s why we’re able to keep coming back. And we stay together.”
Dziagwa rearranged his travel plans. He leaves Monday for the start of the Big 12 conference tournament to see his son’s final game(s). He is just not coming home this weekend with the trophy his program was consumed by thoughts of winning this year.