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10 quick thoughts on Wharton's big victory

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Sun. February 24, 2013 | John C. Cotey | Email

1. The line to hug Tommy Tonelli after the 41-39 victory lasted about 30 minutes.

When the media finally had a moment to interview Tonelli, someone jokingly asked if we had to hug him first. It was a rhetorical question, but before anyone could ask a question Tonelli said why not, and pulled three reporters in for a group hug. 

Yeah, he was that happy.

2. Tonelli said when the three referees got together to discuss whether the last second 3-pointer made by Orlando University was good, he kept his eyes on the one guy that had waved the shot off right away, hoping he would win the argument.

Ironically, University coach Billy Owens said he was watching the other two guys, hoping they could convince the other guy the shot was off in time.

3. It wasn't. See here:

4. You can't get much closer than that. Which is why Tonelli said afterwards that "Someone was looking over us. I think I know who."

Tonelli's father passed away two years ago. He couldn't be in hug line, but you can bet the coach suspected his pops was in the building after that ending.

5. Outstanding atmosphere. Really just terrific. 

I attended the Beast Athletics Shoot-out Friday night, featuring the No. 1 team in the country, Huntington Prep, and the No. 1 high school player on the planet in Andrew Wiggins, and the place was filled, and honestly there were alot better basketball players in that gym than in Wharton's. There were multiple 6-foot-9 kids with handles running around the gym all night, dozens of Division I-A players, and a high level of play. It was impressive.

But the crowd was flat. And you wanna know why? They weren't rooting for anything, or anyone. They came to see great basketball players do great things, but they weren't really invested in the outcome, nor did they seem to care who won.

Saturday, just about everyone in the gym was invested in the outcome. They all cared who won. There were neighborhood kids there, local community people, people from other high schools, parents and of course the students. They wanted to see Wharton or University do well, or Tommy Tonelli get to state, or Chase Litton play great, but mostly to be part of something special.

There was energy, and atmosphere, and excitement, and anxiety. There was, really, just about everything. I wish we could see more of that during the season, but I'll take it when I can get it.

6. There was all kinds of emotion in the building. Matthew Tonelli, Tommy Tonelli's youngest son, was practically inconsolable after the conclusion, and Thomas -- a guard on the Wildcat team -- and Tommy shared a nice long embrace afterwards, with the coach planting a kiss on his boy's cheek.

And off to the side, Lisa Litton held back the tears -- well, she tried anyway -- as her son Chase celebrated. Litton's other two sons are Wharton grads and basketball alumni, and Zach and Joshua remain very close to the program, and Lisa gives a lot of her time as a team mom, including playing a big role in the popular summer camps Tonelli holds for area youth.

It was a big night for a lot of people in the gym.

7. Chase Litton would be my MVP from Saturday's game. He made a few hustle plays that won't show up in the boxscore, and the biggest ones came in the fourth quarter.

He made a nice pass to Sir Patrick Reynolds for a basket (not his only nice pass of the night either), and his tip of a missed free throw led to C.J. McGill getting back to the line, but more importantly it helped burn four seconds off the clock when only 10 remained.

If University had those four seconds, and not just 6.7 of them to get down the court and put up a shot, then Miguel Rivera's 3-pointer is good with a few seconds to spare, , and Wharton probably loses the game.

"Small plays mean a whole lot,'' Litton said. Sure do.

8. If not Litton, there's lots to choose from.

C.J. McGill struggled a little bit with his shot on the night, but he came up big down the stretch. His passes set up the last two baskets of the third quarter, and he made the first two hoops of the fourth quarter, including a three-pointer. In the last 28 seconds, he was 3 of 4 from the free throw line.

And Jaken Grier really kept Wharton from falling behind in the first half when it was struggling with its shot. He made two 3-pointers and scored 8 of the Wildcats 18 points. Wharton made just six field goals in the first two quarters, and Grier had three of them.

9. I haven't seen many tighter games. It was obvious early on that this was coming down to the final possession.

Wharton led by five early in the second quarter, after Grier scored on a 3-pointer and a drive to the hoop, and Sir Patrick Reynolds put one in inside. But University answered with six straight points to go into the half ahead 19-18.

In the third quarter, University opened up 26-20 lead after a 3-pointer by Marquese Clark, but Wharton came right back with eight straight points, thansk to a 3-pointer by McGill and two hoops by Litton, the second of which was an alley-oop jam on a feed from McGill.

Take away those two sequences, and it was nip and tuck all the way.

10. After failed attempts in 2007 and 2011 at a region championship, Wharton is finally through. 

 

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