In the heavy metal rock-type clamor of the playoffs, when heated tempers distract from the task at hand, Coral Springs Christian coach Steve Fitzgerald and his star 6-6 center Nura Zanna play it classic jazz cool.
Fitzgerald channeling his inner Phil Jackson Zen and Zanna responding to opponents’ hard fouls with poker-faced trips to the free-throw line has set the tone for the Crusaders’ improbable run to its first state final four.
“Maintaining composure is huge,” Fitzgerald said. “As you play in these really tough, competitive games, the kids’ natural reaction is to get flustered and panic a little bit. If I act crazy on the sidelines, that is only going to add to it.
“What I got from watching Phil Jackson is that you manage the game. Even having a guy like Big Z [Zanna] take so much physical punishment and not react, is something our kids feed off as well.”
The Source Hoops No 7 Crusaders (23-8) hope their winning blueprint of a stifling defense and out-executing opponents by showing “poise under pressure” extends to its Class 3A state semifinal matchup against No. 3 Florida Air Academy (28-1) at The Lakeland Center on Wednesday.
It’s safe to say that a big part of the Falcons’ scouting report has centered on making a player other than the quick-jumping Zanna beat them inside.
Leading up to the final four, Zanna has faced a steady dose of physical double- and triple-teams designed to frustrate him.
“Teams try to get me off track,” Zanna said. “They try to push me out of bounds, hold my jersey and talk trash sometimes. Those type of players are not here to play basketball. My team sees me as a leader, so I don’t react to it. This just motivates me to show them what I got.”
Zanna is averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.
All the added attention on Zanna has opened the floor for a talented supporting cast led by Brandon Spencer, eighth-grade standout Jeff Prophete, Robby Bell, sixth-man standout Lawrence Barnes and Alaowei Talent.
Case in point was the 50-40 road upset of No. 2 Sagemont in the regional semifinals when Lions’ big men Andre Horne and Vieux Kande fouled out trying to guard Zanna, who finished with six points and seven rebounds.
Beneath the cool exterior of Zanna and Fitzgerald, however, lies two competitive spirits. Privately, Zanna, a Long Island University recruit, still believes he has something to prove.
Fitzgerald said he incorporated Jackson’s even-keeled demeanor to keep his players’ emotions in check.
Whether up by 10 or down by 15, Fitzgerald, typically with arms folded, will maintain the same stoic facial expression.
“I don’t see the merit of acting like a fool on the sidelines,” Fitzgerald said. “All it does it call attention on yourself. I want the attention to be on the game of basketball. In the second half of the season we’ve won six games where we came back in the fourth quarter. From Day 1 in our system all we preach is being poised enough down the stretch to win those type of games.”