TAMPA — Trailing by one point with a packed house roaring on their feet, Freedom passed the ball around the Wharton defense as the final seconds ticked down, eight, seven, six, five …
Freedom guard Nick Butler drove toward the hoop. Two Wharton defenders collapsed on Butler, who swung the ball back to Xavier Betancourt, who stood four feet behind the top of the 3-point arc.
Calmly, cooly, Betancourt received the pass and then released a high, arching shot that whistled cleanly through the net with three seconds remaining.
At last it was a victory over the arch-rival Wildcats, who failed to get off a final shot, sealing the final score in a key Class 8A, District 8 battle: Freedom 51, Wharton 49.
"I was not nervous," said Betancourt, a senior who shoots dozens of 3-pointers every morning at 6:30 a.m. "I have been waiting my whole life for that opportunity. I have practiced that moment. I have dreamed it. I was ready for it. I wanted it."
When he released the ball, Betancourt said he knew, "It was good. I just felt it. You can tell when it's going to be good."
The shot ended a furious, fast-paced, back-and-forth contest that featured an 18-7 first-quarter lead for Freedom followed by a steady, hard-nosed comeback by Wharton, which took the lead, 34-33 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
Down the final eight minutes, the teams traded the lead four times and Wharton (11-3, 8-1) appeared to take control when with 51 seconds left Wildcat Salim Richardson stole a pass, drove the floor and was fouled making a layup. When Richardson sank his foul shot, Wharton led 49-46.
Freedom (12-1) cut the gap to 49-48 after sinking a couple of foul shots. But Wharton had possession with 28.5 seconds remaining before getting called for a foul before inbounding the ball and giving possession back to Freedom.
From there, the final heroics awaited Betancourt.
"We ran what we always run in those final seconds," Freedom coach Ken Angel said. "We wanted a shot inside but it wasn't there. The shot for (Betancourt) was there and I was fine with him taking it. I didn't look when he shot it, but I had total confidence in him. Of course from the noise I knew he made it."
The Patriots' victory avenges an earlier tough loss to Wharton, 73-54 on Dec. 4.
"I am so proud of the way this team never, ever stops," Angel said. "These guys are tough."