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'Cats clinch emotional win for Tommy Tonelli

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Fri. February 11, 2011 | Joey Knight | Email

'Cats clinch emotional win for Tommy Tonelli

TAMPA -- Perhaps the adage still holds up. Maybe no team truly can win a game solely on emotion. But darned if it wasn't a tangible element in Wharton's game plan Friday night.

As tangible as the tears streaming down Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli's face.

Forty-eight hours after learning that his father -- Thomas Joseph Tonelli, Sr. -- had passed away in Chicago, Tonelli's club neutralized county scoring leader Michael Frazier en route to a poignant 56-40 triumph against Plant in the Class 6A, District 8 final.

Afterward, Tonelli wept as he was embraced by players, administrators, friends and loved ones. Then, he and his players -- and even his three kids -- took turns trimming the nylon from both rims.

"I'm just so thankful to my players for the effort they gave for themselves," said Tonelli, who flies out for Chicago first thing Saturday.

"I told them in the locker room, 'Guys, it would mean so much to me for us to win the game for the memory of my father, and everything he's done in my life to help me as a person and a basketball player,' but more than that, I wanted to win to enjoy the thrill of winning for them."

The Wildcats' inspired effort was most glaring in their defensive performance on Frazier, whose season-low 15 points were 15 fewer than his season average.

Lanky senior A.J. Astroth guarded Frazier in ball-denial man defense throughout the night, but got consistent, collapsing help when Frazier drove to the paint or baseline. A University of Florida commitment, Frazier had only four first-half points, all of which were preceded by three turnovers.

"If he doesn't have the ball he can't score," Astroth said.

Nonetheless, Plant played the hosts to a 19-all tie at halftime and took a 23-21 lead on Robert Sample's interior basket off a nifty Frazier feed. But Wharton answered with a 14-0 run in which Astroth (17 points) and fellow senior Xavier Owens (25) scored every point.

Astroth's 3-pointer made it 29-23. He followed that by connecting with Owens for an alley-oop layup after a Plant turnover to make it an eight-point game. Plant immediately turned the ball over again, and Astroth answered with a tip-in to make it 33-23 with 1:31 to play in the third quarter.

Plant (20-7) never came within eight the rest of the game.

"It means everything," Astroth said. "After the death of his father, we all knew what we had to do. We had to win it for him, but not only for him and his father, but for ourselves. We all wanted the same thing so we just came out there and got it done."

The elder Mr. Tonelli, a retired electrician whom his son described as a "blue-collar guy,' had suffered a stroke about a month ago, said Tommy Tonelli's wife, Kristin. He is survived by four children and his wife of 53 years, Marge. He was 75.

"(Tommy) loves this school and he loves the kids," a teary-eyed Kristin Tonelli said. "And heading home to bury your father, at least you're going home knowing that you won him his championship. It's the only highlight for him of the weekend."

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