Keith Stroud had a simple question for the University Christian basketball team.
What was their vision for the program?
Their reply — respect and a title.
UC already has one of those.
Two more victories and the other follows.
The Christians (26-3) will face Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy (22-4) on Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the Class 4A state semifinal game at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
“You better be excited about going back to Lakeland because you’re never guaranteed another opportunity," said Stroud, who took the UC girls team to the state semifinals in 2015 and the final in 2016. "I don’t care if it’s guys, girls or whatever so yeah, I’m looking forward to it, I really am."
The Lions are seeking their third consecutive state title. UC, on the other hand, is the new kid on the Lakeland block. The Christians are grateful for their trip to the final, but they’re not just happy to be there. Quite the opposite.
“Leaving a statement, we’re going to build something, going to make it something, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do,” said UC senior guard G’Shan Aldridge. “We came all this way to win state. We didn’t come all this way for nothing.”
UC has been three rounds deep in the basketball playoffs before (1994, 2000, 2004), but never has it been in the state semifinal round. But it’s been a different kind of season at UC.
Presumptively tabbed as the No. 3 team in District 2-4A behind Providence and a Corey Walker-led Bishop Snyder, UC didn’t flinch.
The Christians knocked out Snyder in the district semis and then handed the Stallions their first district loss since 2009 in the final. The state playoffs? Only victories by 14 and 20 points.
Stroud said that groundwork was laid for 2019 a year ago during a midnight camp practice when he asked the question about what UC players hoped to accomplish during their careers.
“They talked state championship because of our football program but I said, ‘You really know what it’s going to take to win a state championship?’” Stroud said. “You just don’t talk it with your mouth, you got to be willing to put the work in.”
That wasn’t going to be easy. With little tradition and no 2020 major college prospects dotting the roster, respect was something that UC had to earn the old fashioned way.
By earning it each game out.
Among UC’s leaders, four of its top scorers, Denzel Wiggins, Michael Griffin, Aldridge and Raishaad Newsome, are seniors. Junior Lenzy Hancock Jr. is tops in both scoring (13 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg).
UC will take an 11-game winning streak into Wednesday's state semifinal in search of one more step toward its goal.
“Respect that’s a big one, respect, nobody believe it’d come this way,” Aldridge said. “Everybody believed Providence was going to go. We had to prove them wrong. … We feel like we had to work a little harder [to get here].”