ST. PETERSBURG — With an undefeated record and a top ranking in Class 8A, St. Petersburg coach Chris Blackwell knows his team will get an opponent's "A" game every night.
On Saturday, Wharton did so and beat the Green Devils 50-49 in the final of the Northeast Holiday Invitational tournament.
St. Petersburg (11-1) suffered its first loss of the season. Wharton (13-2) wins its second Northeast tournament in three years.
"It was a tremendous team effort," Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli said. "I can't say enough about our defensive effort. Both teams battled hard. I just can't say enough about our team."
The game came down to the final three seconds. Clinging to a 48-44 lead, Wharton's Jack Taylor hit two free throws with 56 seconds left to make it 50-44. But St. Petersburg came back with a 3-pointer by Dayon Griffin 10 seconds later to cut it to 50-47.
Taylor then had a one-and-one free-throw attempt with 22 seconds left but missed. St. Petersburg called timeout to set up a 3-point shot. Terrell Burney shook free in the left corner and launched a 3-pointer with five seconds left.
The shot bounced off the front rim and Darius Banks tipped it in with three seconds left to pull within a point. Chase Litton then threw a long inbounds pass to Auden Tate, who was fouled immediately. He missed his free throw, but St. Petersburg had no time to get off a shot.
"When you're on the top you're going to get everybody's best game," Blackwell said. "That's what happened tonight. They brought out their best game. We had our shots. I don't think we were patient enough. We settled for some shots we shouldn't have."
St. Petersburg started slowly and trailed 15-13 after the first quarter. But the Green Devils settled down and took a 28-20 halftime lead. In the third quarter, Litton hit a layup with 2:30 left to tie the game at 33. Tate hit a 3-pointer at the end of the third to make it 38-35 and the Wildcats never trailed again.
"It was all about teamwork," said Litton, who scored 11 and was named the tournament's most valuable player. "We knew they had shooters. We manned up with the top three guys and zoned the bottom two guys. If we made their guys underneath make plays we thought we could win and that's what happened."