NEW TAMPA — Perennial point guard that he is, Tommy Tonelli still thrives on distributing.
On this afternoon, the veteran Wharton coach — fifth on USF’s all-time assists list a quarter-century after his career ended — is passing out praise with chest-pass crispness.
Credit for the Wildcats’ 13-game win streak is worked from perimeter to post. From the late-season emergence of guard Sir Patrick Reynolds to the brisk acclimation of transfer point guard Da-Vonte Lamar to the blossoming promise of rangy freshman Chase Litton to the unheralded steadiness of forward Drake Williams, Tonelli gets everyone involved.
But even this 263-game winner acknowledges his sum-of-our-parts mantra has some fine print.
The Wildcats, one victory from their first state tournament, wouldn’t have come anywhere near this precipice without 6-foot-5 senior captains A.J. Astroth and Xavier Owens.
“You look around the county, just in our county, there are very few teams that have two guys the caliber of A.J. and Xavier,” said Tonelli, whose team hosts Orlando Dr. Phillips in Saturday night’s Class 6A region semifinals, which could attract a crowd of roughly 1,500.
“They may have one, they may have one that might be better, but to have two of their caliber and the way they complement each other and the strengths of each offensively and defensively, we’re very lucky.”
Physically, the pair’s contrast is clear.
Armand Jahi Astroth (20.4 ppg, 4.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists) is a 190-pound perimeter player who appears to be the slightly taller of the two. Using his astounding wing span to deny entry passes, he held county scoring leader Michael Frazier of Plant to a season-low 15 points in the district finals.
Xavier Dar’Nele Owens (16.5 ppg, 9.7 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) is a power forward who at 220 resembles a linebacker playing in the low post.
“I’m typically more of an outside shooter, he’s more of a driver and finishes strong at the basket,” Astroth said. “We’ve learned to kind of add both parts to our game as well, but say my shot’s off, he picks up the slack by scoring on the inside, or if he’s not scoring I’ll pick up his slack.”
Stand them face to face, and they’re a subtle mirror reflection. Astroth is left-handed and has a tattoo on his left upper arm. Owens, the righty, has one on his right upper arm.
But on most nights, they’re statistical dead-ringers. In the 25 games they’ve played together (Owens missed three), they’ve been the Wildcats’ top scorers in 24.
It’s this dual proficiency, this two-dimensional team captaincy, this telepathic familiarity the two share, that has Wharton (23-5) in only its second region championship.
“Sometimes I’ll make a pass and he’ll just end up being there,” Owens said.
Saturday, the select-your-Strychnine dilemma falls on Dr. Phillips. Sag on Owens and allow Astroth to strike and slash from long range, or attack the perimeter and risk allowing Owens to post his thick body one-on-one down low?
“They both bring unique things to the other team trying to stop you,” Tonelli said.
Now, they’re trying to bring a final four berth.
“We know the history, we know we’ve gotten to this point before …and we want to get over this ridge,” Owens said. “Nobody’s ever done it before.”
All games at 7 p.m. Saturday
Class 2A, Tampa Prep (24-3) at Admiral Farragut (15-6)
Who’s hot: Admiral Farragut — C Max Eaton (16 points in region semifinals); Tampa Prep — F Devontae Morgan (19 ppg, 7.5 rpg in playoffs)
Class 3A, Tampa Catholic (20-8) at Fort Myers Bishop Verot (22-7)
Who’s hot: TC — F Antonio Rubio (10 points, 14 rebounds in region semifinals); Bishop Verot — F Nate Howard (14.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg)
Class 4A, Blake (27-2) at Fort Myers (20-10)
Who’s hot: Blake — PG Andre Smith (21 points, five assists in region semifinals); Fort Myers — G Evin Graham (20 ppg, 4.9 apg, 8.6 rpg)
Class 5A, Lake Wales (29-2) at Durant (21-4)
Who’s hot: Lake Wales — F Oshey Washington (23 points in region semifinals); Durant — G Andre Nation (23 points in region semifinals)
Class, 5A Chamberlain (24-2) at Gibbs (22-7)
Who’s hot: Chamberlain — G Reggie Hart (20 points in region semifinals); Gibbs — G Quincy Ford (24 points in region semifinals)
Class 6A, Orlando Dr. Phillips (23-5) at Wharton (23-5)
Who’s hot: Dr. Phillips — PG Shane Larkin (27 points in region semifinals); Wharton — G A.J. Astroth (20 ppg in playoffs)