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"You've got to win games down the stretch by playing defense and hitting your free throws. We didn't do that and that's why Sickles deserved to beat us."

_ DOUG ALPIN, Chamberlain coach after Tuesday's loss to Sickles. The Gryphons' (8-4) David Senyak scored with four seconds left to lift Sickles. In the teams' previous meeting, Chamberlain (8-2) edged Sickles on a last-second shot by Mortimer Lightburn.

FREQUENT FLYER MILES

Tampa Catholic, (8-4, 2-0) finally gets to stay home for a while. After playing eight of its first 12 games on the road, the Crusaders play their next four at home. They've visited Miami, New Port Richey, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Robinson. Ashley Thomas has led the Crusaders charge, averaging 17.7 points.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Chris Bonner, the 6-foot-3 mainstay of the Gaither Cowboys. Bonner is second only to Brandon's Zaronn Cann as the highest rated Hillsborough County recruit by FloridaHoops.com. Bonner averages 18.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. "Chris has taken on a leadership role with our fairly young team and he is doing it well," Gaither coach Dwayne Olinger said.

POSITIVE OUTLOOK

Despite an 86-65 loss to Wheeler, Ga., in the Hooters Holiday Shootout, Brandon coach Mark Hermann feels good about his team's prospects for the remainder of the season. "That was as bad a loss as I've had in all my years of coaching" Hermann said. "But you learn from every game and at 10-2, I like our chances for postseason play." The Eagles are ranked 19th in the state by FloridaHoops.com.

TOP 5 COUNTY TEAMS

1. Brandon (10-2)

2. Wharton (9-2)

3. Chamberlain (9-2)

4. Tampa Prep (9-4)

5. Sickles (8-4)

GIRLS

GAITHER SEEKS TURNAROUND

Gaither's basketball program traditionally is strong, but with the Cowboys off to a 1-6 start this season, coach Bill Agatheas is trying to keep a positive attitude while maintaining his sense of humor. "I haven't gone to church since I was an altar boy," he said. "But this season might get me to start up again." Gaither hopes its fortunes will turn with the addition of point guard Alexis Walker in the starting lineup. An excellent ball handler, Walker transferred from Cambridge over the summer and was supposed to shore up the Cowboys backcourt. But a knee injury has prevented her from suiting up this year. X-rays were negative and Walker has been practicing in light drills. Sophomore Ashtin Newman has been running the offense but is a better fit at the 2-guard or on the wing. Agatheas said Walker would be fitted with a brace and he hopes to have her back on the court next week.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Behind strong starts from forward Eriqah Butler and guard Markeshia Grant, Plant seems to have picked up where it left off last year, when the team reached the state final four. The Panthers got off to a 12-1 start and won the Keeler Memorial Christmas Tournament at Academy of the Holy Names over the winter break. But after getting so close to a state title last season, anything less than a similar run likely won't suit the Panthers, according to coach Carrie Mahon. "If we don't match last year's 22-5 record and trip to the final four, we'll have an awful lot of disappointed players around here," she said. "Leadership, with only one senior on the squad (Tori DeFederico), is not where it has to be for us to advance but we're working on it.

_ JIM REESE and DAVID NORRIE, Times correspondents

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