TAMPA — Plant coach Mike Phillips had his selection of strychnine Tuesday: pack in his defense and allow Wharton to beat him from long range, or extend and free up the Wildcats' athletic big men.
Packing in was his poison.
In a dizzying second-quarter stretch, 6-foot-1 senior Damian Dixon and 6-5 junior A.J. Astroth combined to sink six consecutive 3-pointers to help propel Wharton (5-1, 2-0) to a 66-51 triumph in a pivotal Class 6A, District 8 contest.
"I think the way they were playing defense … gave us a lot more opportunities to shoot those shots," said Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, six games into his second stint as 'Cats coach after a two-year tenure on Stan Heath's staff at USF.
"Those shots were there. We missed a few early then started making them and got in a rhythm."
When Plant (2-4, 0-2) adjusted, extending its defenders and limiting Wharton to one second-half 3, the 'Cats went inside. Brawny 6-4 junior Xavier Owens scored on a dunk and natural three-point play to spark a 9-0 third-quarter run that gave Wharton a 49-33 lead.
Dixon and Astroth each scored 24, with Astroth collecting five of Wharton's eight 3-pointers. Plant, which has no senior on its roster, was led by 6-3 sophomore Michael Frazier, who scored 16 of his 27 in the second half and sank three first-half treys.
One of his 3-pointers came during an 8-0 first-quarter Panthers spurt that tied the score at 12. His basket with 4:08 to play before halftime would tie things at 24 before Astroth and Dixon went on their long-range barrage.
"I feel like a lot of times we had a hand in their face and everything," Phillips said. "They shot the ball real well and their size and athleticism took a toll on us."