Not too long ago Calvary Christian was losing basketball games by as many as 50 and 60 points.
The arrival of guard Jerald Butler and towering siblings Victor and Soloman Uyaelunmo left those days of mediocrity far behind.
On Saturday morning, the Eagles felt what it was like to be a state champion.
Led by an outstanding defensive performance against one of the top players in the country, Calvary Christian secured a 65-48 victory over Tampa Catholic in the Class 5A state final at The Lakeland Center.
Calvary Christian (24-6), a team that went 6-18 only three years ago, won its first state title in boys’ basketball less than a year after its baseball team won the school’s first state championship in any sport.
“This means so much to me and veterans like [senior guard] Rasheem [Etienne],” said Cilk McSweeney, who became the Eagles’ coach in 2013. “We took our lumps, but every single year we’ve been getting better.”
McSweeney won state titles as a player for Dillard in the early 2000s and won his first as a coach before a sizable crowd of supporters that included New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, whose children attend the school.
Girardi watched most of the game before heading back to manage his team’s exhibition game Saturday against the Tigers in Lakeland, and saw Calvary stifle Tampa Catholic’s shooters, particularly McDonald’s All-American Kevin Knox.
Soloman Uyaelunmo finished with 17 points and did a great job limiting Knox’s productivity with help from his brother, Victor, who had nine points, 12 rebounds and five blocks.
Knox, who has offers from numerous schools including Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, finished with 24 points but made only 1 of 12 three-pointers, shot 8 of 21 overall and looked frustrated after fouling out with 1:34 left in the fourth quarter and the game out of reach.
“We felt like we were in a great situation to prepare to face a player that will probably be a one [year] and done in college and go to the NBA,” McSweeney said. “These guys executed, and I’m so proud of them for what they accomplished.”
Butler led Calvary Christian to a much better game offensively than it had in Wednesday’s 39-20 semifinal win over Marianna, outscoring Knox with 25 points. Butler also had 10 rebounds and three steals. Calvary Christian’s volume of visits to the foul line paid off as it made 24 of 36 free throws.
“I remember last year scoring 18 in the first half and only scoring one point in the second half,” Butler said. “This time it was the reverse. In the second half, I came out and attacked. I wanted to attack the rim and get fouled and hit my shots.”
Three Tampa Catholic starters — Alijah Harrison, Tai Strickland and Bentlee Sanders — each shot 1 for 10 from the field.
Tampa Catholic (25-6) made a dismal 16 of 68 shots (23.5 percent) and went 5 of 34 from three-point range (14.7 percent).
“We knew they were going to shoot over 30 threes in the game, and we knew our length would give them problems,” McSweeney said. “We knew what type of defense we had and it’s top notch and we showed that today.”
CC (24-6): Lebron Jr 4, Gray 4, S. Uyaelunmo 17, Etienne 2, Eze 4, Butler 25, V. Uyaelunmo 9. TC (25-6): Harrison 3, Ke. Knox 24, Carter 6, Sanders 4, Strickland 3, Robinson 2, Giorgi 3, Ko. Knox 3. Half: CC 25-21. Fouled out: Ke. Knox, S. Uyaelunmo, Harrison. Technical: Strickland. Three-pointers: Lebron, S. Uyaelunmo, Butler, Harrison, Ke. Knox, Carter, Ko. Knox, Giorgi. Rebounds: V. Uyaelunmo 12. Assists: Sanders 3. Steals: Carter, Sanders 5. Blocks: V. Uyaelunmo 5.