ST. PETERSBURG — On the opening night of the Northeast Christmas Invitational tournament, Wharton cruised to a comfortable win while Lakewood held on for a one-point victory. Tuesday's second round was the complete opposite, with Wharton holding on for a dramatic 48-45 win over Northeast and Lakewood coasting to a 60-40 win over Sunlake.
Despite their paths, Wharton and Lakewood will meet in the tournament final at 8:30 tonight. Northeast will play Sunlake in the consolation game starting at 7.
Wharton (11-1) appeared to be playing better than any team in the tournament, but Northeast gave the Wildcats all they could handle. The game started out as expected, with Wharton jumping to an 11-3 lead. Though Northeast struggled to score, it trailed only 21-17 at halftime. The Vikings tied the game at 23 early in the third quarter, but the Wildcats went on a 7-2 run to end the third.
Then things got wild. Wharton had a 41-34 lead midway through the fourth. But Northeast chipped away thanks to the shooting of Patrick Mitchell and key defensive steals. With 31 seconds left and trailing by one, Mitchell hit one of two free throws to tie the game at 45.
However, Wharton's Troy Holston responded, driving to the basket with 26 seconds left and hitting a layup while being fouled to produce a three-point play. Northeast (5-7) had two shots afterward but both missed the mark, and Wharton hung on.
"We practice that play," said Holston, who scored nine for the game. "Coach (Tommy Tonelli) always hits us with pads in practice when we're trying to make those shots. It worked out tonight."
Wharton was led by C.J. McGill's 18 points and Sir Patrick Reynolds added 11. Northeast's leading scorer was Mitchell, who had 12 points.
Holston said the tight game was a surprise.
"I thought we would blow them out," he said. "We had way too many turnovers."
The Spartans didn't mess around in their game against the Seahawks. Led by 15 points from Shabazz Waller and 10 from Frezell Roux, Lakewood (7-1) jumped ahead early and never looked back.
Sunlake hung around and cut the score to 20-18 early in the second, but Lakewood went on a 12-0 run to end the quarter. The Spartans kept up the fastbreak scoring in the second half and Sunlake (5-5) had no answer.
It was a far cry from Monday night's nail biter for Lakewood.
"We had a shootaround before coming here and I had a little talk with them, to say the least," Lakewood coach Anthony Lawrence said. "We worked on some things and we were much, much better tonight. And Shabazz was much better. He took the constructive criticism and played 100 percent better."
Sunlake was led by Pedro Pabon, who scored 11. He was the only Seahawk to reach double figures. Lakewood had 10 players score at least one point.