CLEARWATER — Jesuit has endured a challenging past two weeks, but 16 minutes of basketball Thursday night turned that nightmare into a distant memory.
Playing nearly perfectly in the second half, the visiting Tigers slowly shook off an early 11-point Clearwater advantage, started frustrating the Tornadoes with a variety of stifling defenses, and performed with a ruthless efficiency on the offensive end. All of that added up to a 63-49 victory and a berth in Tuesday’s Class 5A region semifinals.
To get to this point was improbable in itself. Coach Neal Goldman and several Jesuit players came down with the coronavirus late in the regular season, forcing the Tigers to use their JV roster along with their lone available varsity player — junior Jesse Vandeross — in the district tourney. The youngsters did their part, getting Jesuit to the title game, where the varsity performers, minus Goldman, returned but fell to Blake High.
“We came back last Friday and we came out flat,” senior forward and Holy Cross football commit Joe Pesansky said about the setback. “We knew we had to play hard (Thursday) because it could be our last game.”
But Clearwater looked to extend the funk. Senior sub August Salvati (six points) and classmate Nelson Taylor (seven points, 13 rebounds, four assists, four steals) worked hard in the paint while junior Arquis Reynolds (eight points, seven boards) fearlessly drove to the rim, earning the Tornadoes (17-3) a quick eight-point lead that stretched to 30-19 with 2:19 left in the first half.
That was when Jesuit pushed back, bookending the break with a 13-3 run to climb within a point at 33-32 just 2½ minutes into the third quarter.
“We came out and we found our lineup in the second half,” Pesansky said after keeping Jesuit in the hunt with 15 of his game-high 29 points in the first half. “(Senior) Ryan Feocco (six points during the run, 12 points for the game on 6-of-7 shooting and 13 rebounds) had a huge game for us off the bench. He was fantastic.”
“We anticipated we’d be behind early, but we’re kind of conditioned to hang in there, hang tough,” Goldman said after his victorious return to the bench. “We’re a good second-half team.”
Mixing in a masterful triangle-and-two defense that befuddled all-star C.J. Lee (15 points on 6-of-17 shooting) and Clearwater, the Tigers turned the tide. Shooting 8 for 10 from the field, led by eight points from senior guard Ryan Weir (11 points and six assists), while holding the Tornadoes to a mere 28 percent (5 of 18), Jesuit took its first lead with 2:50 remaining, then kept its foot firmly on the gas pedal.
The game’s final 4½ minutes were sheer perfection for the Tigers (23-4). Clearwater was held scoreless, committed three turnovers and saw aggressive point guard AJ Wright (10 points) head to the bench with a leg injury. Jesuit, meanwhile, converted its last four shots, going 6 of 7 from the free-throw line to win going away.
“Yeah, that was kind of a storybook finish for us,” Goldman said. “I think we scored every time we came down the floor and we made some big stops. We executed at the end, and it was nice not to have to sweat it out in the last minutes.”
Next up will be a fourth meeting with Blake, who took down Boca Ciega in overtime, on the road Tuesday.
“(Blake) has peaked at the end of the season and they’re playing really good basketball,” Goldman said. “We scored just five points in the fourth quarter (of the district final), so we’ll have to finish a little better next time.”
Boys basketball region quarterfinals
Alonso 62, Durant 55
Sarasota Riverview 54, Wharton 44
East Lake 78, Largo 42
Wiregrass Ranch 72, St. Petersburg 69
Lakeland Kathleen 55, Bloomingdale 41
Plant City 78, Hillsborough 71
Blake 49, Boca Ciega 46
Jesuit 63, Clearwater 49
Leesburg 82, Land O’ Lakes 76
Fivay 67, Orlando Jones 60
Lake Highland Prep 63, Wesley Chapel 38
Eustis 39, Nature Coast 36
Tampa Catholic 76, Cocoa 58
Carrollwood Day 81, St. Petersburg Catholic 57
Bishop McLaughlin 62, Calvary Christian 48
Brandon Academy 56, Academy at the Lakes 49
Cambridge Christian 79, Zephyrhills Christian 68
Fort Myers SW Florida Christian 69, Bayshore Christian 68
Naples First Baptist 54, Canterbury 47