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Reflections: Wharton loss in region final doesn't negate dramatic finish

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Tue. June 14, 2011 | Joey Knight | Email

Reflections: Wharton loss in region final doesn't negate dramatic finish

This week, the Times’ high school staff reflects on the best high school sporting event each writer covered in the 2010-11 school year. Joey Knight looks back at Wharton’s 57-54 region final basketball loss to Orlando Dr. Phillips on Feb. 26.

Full disclosure here: The contest I’m about to detail was not the best I observed this past year.
Seems my most memorable game also ranked first on fellow staff writer John C. Cotey’s board. Conceding to his bribery of a free lunch (albeit off the dollar menu, I’d discover later), I meekly forfeited the right to re-chronicle it. He’ll be doing that later this week.

In the meantime, I give you my 1A.

It fell one questionable turnover shy of being No. 1.

Nearly four months later, I’m still not sure what left me more drained: the 9.3 miles I jogged in South Tampa that warm February morning or the frenetic rally mustered by Wharton in the Class 6A region finals in New Tampa that night.

While that was my first Gasparilla Distance Classic, it was hardly the first time I’d seen a Tommy Tonelli-coached team sparkle on a grand stage.

Stumble, however, preceded the sparkle, which made the waning minutes all the more exhilarating.

Before a stoked throng of more than 900, the Wildcats emerged flat on the perimeter and flustered inside. Dr. Phillips, the state’s No. 2-ranked 6A team, liberally exploited what it perceived as a low-post advantage.

By halftime, the Panthers had outscored Wharton 26-6 in the paint en route to a 20-point halftime lead. Then things got surreal and, for the Wildcats faithful, darned near sublime.

Gradually, the visitors’ lead regressed from insurmountable to inconspicuous. By the end of the third quarter, it stood at 15 points. When rangy Wildcats guard A.J. Astroth — held to two first-half field goals — hit a 3-pointer with 3:29 to play, it had been reduced to 10.

Meantime, that acoustic phenomenon unique to high school gyms, where a crowd of 900 can sound like 9,000, set in.

“We can doooooo thissssss!” Raoul Zayas, the only public-address announcer the ’Cats have ever known, blurted through his scorer’s table microphone.

Indeed, Astroth wasn’t through, though it seemed like the Panthers were. They’d commit three turnovers in the final 88 seconds, nearly squandering a seven-point lead in the final minute. A Sir Patrick Reynolds trey, after one of those turnovers, made it 55-51 with 35.5 seconds to go. Another turnover led to an Astroth 3-pointer and a 55-54 game with 25 ticks remaining.

At that point, the ’Cats stood on the precipice of the biggest win in program history. They’d get no farther.

With 5.9 seconds to play, the Panthers’ Isaac Lane hit two free throws to make it a three-point game. Astroth took the ensuing inbounds pass, but officials ruled his foot touched a sideline. The Wildcats had come up short, but not before captivating the audience with their undistilled resilience.

For the second time that day, a sporting event had left me breathless.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how they walked off that floor and left it, despite the loss,” Tonelli said. “There’s no way they can walk out of here not feeling proud.”

More games that almost made the final cut
1. Football, Jesuit 29, Robinson 28:
Arguably the county’s best regular-season football game. Three TDs were scored on consecutive second-half plays, including back-to-back kickoff returns.

2. Football, Hillsborough 27, King 26: In this playoff elimination game, Hillsborough defensive tackle Earl Moore blocked a field goal on the final play to preserve a wild Terriers win.

3. Track, 4x400-meter relay, Charles Johnson Invitational (at King): Most exciting 3 ½ minutes of my year. Trailing two runners, Newsome senior A.J. Dowse overtook both on the final turn with an improbable kick to lead the Wolves to victory.

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