TAMPA — The surgery spanned 16 excruciating minutes. For the entire first half of Saturday's Class 6A region final, Dr. Phillips dissected Wharton, compiling 26 interior points en route to a 20-point halftime lead.
But that metaphorical scalpel never once penetrated the Wildcats' collective heart. Buoyed by 6-foot-5 senior A.J. Astroth (24 points), a resurgent defensive effort and an energetic crowd of 908, the hosts (23-6) nearly turned the operating tables.
The rally ended when officials ruled Astroth's foot touched the sideline after taking an inbound pass with 3.1 seconds remaining, preserving Dr. Phillips' 57-54 win.
"As ugly as the first half was, the second half couldn't have been more rewarding as their coach to see them go out and play the way they played," Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli said. "I couldn't be more proud of how they walked off that floor and left it, despite the loss."
Employing clever screens and crisp passes to the interior by DePaul-bound point guard Shane Larkin (17 points), the Panthers outscored Wharton 26-6 in the paint en route to a 38-18 halftime lead. Meantime, Astroth and fellow 6-5 senior Xavier Owens — Wharton's top scorers — had two combined field goals at halftime.
"Owens and Astroth are very, very good but they're more wing players," Dr. Phillips coach Anthony Long said. "So we thought we might be able to hurt them inside a little bit and we did, especially in the first half."
The Wildcats began chipping away at the Panthers' lead but trailed 49-34 entering the fourth quarter. Astroth's 3-pointer with 3:29 to play made it 53-43. Dr. Phillips still led by seven with less than a minute remaining, but Sir Patrick Reynolds' trey — after a Panthers turnover — made it 55-51 with 35.5 seconds to play.
Another Dr. Phillips turnover on the far sideline with 25 seconds to play was answered by an Astroth 3. Panthers guard Isaac Lane missed the front end of a one-and-one with 9.8 seconds to go, but converted a pair four seconds later after an Astroth foul.
That set up the final flawed inbound play. Before that, Astroth tallied 17 second-half points.
"I thought maybe (Astroth) got bumped, but it's tough; I didn't really see it all the way," Tonelli said. "I thought I could've given him more help, called a better sideline out-of-bounds play than I did. If I could change it I would."