LAKELAND | Bolles has no shortage of athletic success stories.
Basketball just hadn't been one of them - at least not this century - until Wednesday afternoon.
The Bulldogs, playing in their first state semifinal since 1993, pulled away in the second half to beat Tampa Catholic 68-53 at the Lakeland Center. Bolles (29-3) will face Melbourne Holy Trinity Episcopal (24-7) at 8 p.m. Thursday for the Class 4A state championship, a matchup that feels far less like a heavyweight battle than the semifinal game did.
Collin Smith outplayed five-star junior forward Kevin Knox, scoring 31 points and adding 11 rebounds, and the Bulldogs reduced the Crusaders' fast-paced, high-scoring offense to a crawl.
More important for the Bulldogs - history. For once, it's not the storied Bolles football, swimming, soccer or baseball teams bringing in the headlines come tournament time.
"It's huge to be a part of that because Bolles is not known for basketball," coach Anthony Candelino said.
It has been a long time since the Bulldogs have been a force in basketball.
Wind the clock all the way back to 1989, when Bolles, led by Tim Mason and legendary coach Buddy Ward, won its second consecutive state championship.
The Bulldogs were a factor as late as 1993, their last semifinal season, before sliding off into mediocrity and irrelevance. The Bulldogs limped to three consecutive five-win seasons before Candelino was hired in 2010.
"Everybody told me I was crazy [to take the job]," he said. "Everybody told me you're not going to have Division I players. You're not going to have guys who get after it. They're not going to support basketball. Just all those things that were just negative towards it. I've got to tell you, [the culture] has changed."
The Bulldogs flipped the switch right before the break. Freshman Davey Crouch stole a Crusaders ball with 3 seconds to play, dribbled back to the arc and nailed a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game, 31-30.
They wouldn't trail again.
The Crusaders felt the momentum swing on that play and couldn't hold it off in the second half, even when Smith found himself on the bench in foul trouble for much of the third quarter and well into the fourth.
Bolles went heavy on the ball control in Smith's absence and scratched out points where it could before pulling away for good on a Lorenzo Lawrence basket with 4:35 to go after Tampa Catholic had cut the Bulldogs lead to 52-45.
"We knew this was our last year, and we wanted to put an emphasis on that," said Smith, a George Washington signee. "I thought that once we bought into coach's system ,,, play some great defense, great offense, we [could] go this far into the season."
Bolles' defense in the second half was key. Even without the 6-10 Smith in the lineup for lengthy stretches, Tampa Catholic couldn't find lanes around the long arms of Lawrence, Jonathan DeWane and Austin Williams.
The Crusaders finished just 5 of 32 from the 3-point arc.
"They did a really good job of containing us on the outside and not letting us get inside of the paint," said Knox, who has offers from Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, among others.
Knox finished with 23 points. Williams had 12 for Bolles, and Lawrence added 11.
"The work we've all put in for this, our goal was to win it all," Lawrence said. "To be the first team to get here [since 1989], before any of us were born, it means a lot to us."