ORLANDO — Wharton hadn't been able to sustain a long drive all night. In fact, its only score through three quarters — a 27-yard field goal right before halftime — came after Orlando Dr. Phillips' Rudy Norwood threw an interception and the Wildcats got the ball deep into Panthers territory.
So when Jeff Keil finally made it into the end zone on a 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter, cutting Dr. Phillips' lead to 14, the senior running back thought for a second the Wildcats had one more comeback in them.
That moment of optimism would be fleeting.
On its very next drive, Norwood connected with Deionte Gaines for a 56-yard touchdown pass, his first of two scores, and the Panthers cruised the rest of the way to a 37-10 victory.
The victory marked the third straight season Dr. Phillips has eliminated Wharton from the playoffs.
"It was definitely a good thing for us to finally get in the end zone," Keil said about his touchdown with 11:02 to go in the fourth quarter. "Then they just drove down the field and scored the next series. It hit me that it might be my last game ever."
Dr. Phillips, which turned the ball over twice, gave Wharton ample opportunities to get ahead in the first half. But each time the Wildcats got a big break, they spoiled it.
In the first quarter, the teams still scoreless, Norwood fumbled the snap at midfield and Wharton's Mike Myers recovered. Two plays later, however, Wharton's Chase Litton threw an interception.
Dr. Phillips scored a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter. And with less than a minute to go before the half, Wharton just 14 yards from the end zone, had its best shot yet to go into the locker room down by one score. Instead, it settled for the field goal.
"That's what beat us," Litton said about not capitalizing on first-half opportunities. "We should have had three touchdowns."
Botching big breaks continued in the second half.
Litton, who threw for 159 yards, helped pin the Panthers at their 11 three times with punts. After the third, however, Dr. Phillips' Kerry Bernard, who ended the night with 141 rushing yards, broke away for a 70-yarder.
The drive ended with a 32-yard field goal for Dr. Phillips.
"They're a big-play team," Wharton coach David Mitchell said. "That's how they score. That's how they win."
Litton, whose season ended for the third time at the hands of the Panthers, was sure big plays also could have been their own route to victory. The chances were there, he admitted, but the Wildcats — who also accrued 14 penalties — just didn't take advantage of them.
"We wanted the third time to be a charm," said Mitchell, the first words out of his mouth as the rain poured down onto him and his disappointed team.
But it wasn't. And the Wildcats had themselves, not just the Panthers, to blame.
Follow Kelly Parsons on Twitter at @_kellyparsons.