In any grind-it-out game that Coral Springs Christian keeps hanging around, take the Crusaders.
The Source Hoops No. 7 Crusaders, making their state final four debut, got a game-high 22 points and eight rebounds from star center Nura Zanna and staged what has become a routine fourth-quarter rally to upset No. 3 Melbourne Florida Air Academy 56-49 in the FHSAA Class 3A state semifinals Wednesday.
“Anybody that has seen us play knows this is the way we win games,” Crusaders coach Steve Fitzgerald said. “It’s not pretty. We win on toughness and defense and ride this big fella [Zanna] down there.”
A surprising run to the state final four at The Lakeland Center comes down to a showdown against top-ranked Jacksonville Providence in the Class 3A state championship game at 8 p.m. Thursday
Providence (34-1), led by Grayson Allen’s 27 points, looked every bit the class of 3A by dispatching Naples Community School 74-39 in the early semifinal.
Instead of the customary celebratory scene of players storming the court, Coral Springs Christian (24-8) acted like a team that had been there before. Fitzgerald shook hands with his players and then held up one index finger to remind the Crusaders how many victories remain to claim the ultimate prize.
Whatever size advantage Florida Air held (the Falcons’ starters average 6-5, helping them to a 19-9 edge on the offensive glass) was offset by a hard-nosed Crusaders defense which held the Falcons (28-2) to 31.5 percent shooting.
The Crusaders stayed within striking distance before sixth-man standout Lawrence Barnes made a deep, go-ahead three-pointer with 4:26 left that gave the Crusaders a 41-39 lead that it would not relinquish.
“It’s all about mental toughness with me,” Barnes said. “Coach said I have to come in and do something for the team to help in other ways even if my shot is not falling. Once I got in the game, I was ready to take that three-pointer. I stay confident.”
Barnes, Alaowei Talent and Brandon Spencer had eight points apiece for the Crusaders.
Zanna and Talent carried the Crusaders in the third quarter. Trailing 22-19, Zanna used his quickness to put in two quick layups, Talent made back-to-back baskets and Zanna converted a finger roll to draw the Crusaders within 35-34 at the end of the third quarter.
Coral Springs Christian had its most glaring defensive lapse when Vassil Mihoylov drained a three pointer with 40.2 seconds left to bring the Falcons within 49-47. But free throws in the final minute, including two by Barnes, helped the Crusaders advance to their first state championship game.