TAMPA — Go back a decade, when Jesuit and Blake last squared off in a region semifinal. The Tigers were stung by the Yellow Jackets, with Blake parlaying a dominant victory into its only state tournament appearance in school history.
On Tuesday, it would not be déjà vu for Jesuit. The Tigers (24-4), who had their string of nine consecutive district championships snapped less than two weeks ago by Blake, ended the Yellow Jackets’ season with a 45-40 victory in a Class 5A region semifinal. Jesuit won for the 13th time in its previous 14 games, and moves on to Friday’s region title contest against Naples.
It will be the Tigers’ first region championship appearance since 2016, when they defeated Cape Coral Mariner 41-38 for the crown. They then lost 55-54 to Bishop Kenny in the state semifinals. Jesuit had dropped its three previous region semifinals (Naples, 2020; Lake Wales, 2019; and Sarasota Booker, 2018).
Neal Goldman, Hillsborough County’s second winningest coach behind Tampa Prep’s Joe Fenlon, collected his 649th victory after his Tigers beat Blake for the third time this season in four tries.
“It feels great,” Goldman said. “It’s a great achievement to always get to the final eight. It’s always tough to win the semifinal game.”
Jesuit’s defense was the difference. It forced 24 Blake turnovers and held the Yellow Jackets to 39 percent shooting (16-of-41). None was larger than the one that senior Ryan Weir converted into a layup early in the fourth quarter when Blake had an opportunity to go in front.
After the Tigers took their largest lead at 36-27 on a layup by senior Kai Ravenna, the Yellow Jackets reeled off eight consecutive points. Blake then had possession, but Weir stole the ball near midcourt and converted it into a layup to give Jesuit a 38-35 advantage. That ended Blake’s rally as the Tigers eventually built their lead to seven late in the game.
“I’d been waiting for (the steal opportunity) all game,” said Weir, who scored 12 points, six on layups off steals. “I knew I had four guys behind me. So if I missed it, I had a really good defense behind me (and) so I might as well go for it.
“(Defense) was the whole game plan. We know defense is going to get us all the way, so that’s what we focus on.”
Jesuit trailed by eight in each half. Blake’s Kyle Stewart drilled a trey to begin the third quarter, giving his team a 24-16 lead. But the Tigers went on a 13-0 run to go in front for good. A 3-pointer by senior Jack Delp started the rally, and Jesuit’s other five field goals in the spurt came on layups.
Senior Joe Pesansky led the Tigers with 15 points. Senior Cedric Jackson and Stewart, a sophomore, each scored 11 for Blake.
Blake (13-5), whose six-game win streak was snapped, had not advanced this far in the playoffs since 2011. After defeating Jesuit 55-32 in a region semifinal that year, the Yellow Jackets won their only region crown 74-65 against Fort Myers. Blake went 28-3 that season, losing 68-52 to eventual champion Leesburg in the state semifinals.
The Yellow Jackets have enjoyed a revitalization in the past couple years after going 1-22, 1-23 and 3-17 in three consecutive seasons, beginning in 2015-16.
“We felt coming in that our zone defense was going to be active, and we stressed a high activity level that would be tough to score against,” Goldman said. “(Blake) is athletic, but we did a good job of converting from defense to offense. That really saved us.”