This group of Wildcats has grown closer than past teams.
They bonded when outsiders doubted them. They linked arms before tip off to show unity. They wore headbands to help their coach through a tough night.
Warren Jones lost his father five years ago to a heart attack, and Saturday would have been his 56th birthday.
Donald Jones didn't get to see his son build Wesley Chapel into a champion. He never saw his son coach, but his memory inspired the Wildcats, who scrapped for a 47-39 come-from-behind victory against Land O'Lakes (24-3) for their third consecutive district title.
"They knew this is one of my worst days of the year," Jones said of his players. "They wanted to do something to help me out and get me through the day. I couldn't ask for anything better."
Wesley Chapel trailed by as many as 11 and was stymied by a Land O'Lakes zone defense that held the Wildcats to seven points in the first half. When the Gators switched to man, Jones saw an opportunity.
The Wildcats went on a 17-0 run in the second half that lasted the better part of seven minutes, and never trailed again
"When they went to man we were praying for that," Jones said. "As soon as they did that we jumped on it."
The Gators weren't about to give up. They stayed close and cut the Wildcats' lead to one on a free throw by Danielle Priest (six points) with 4:18 left.
When Kayli Keough (seven points) fouled out with 3:21 left, Wesley Chapel pressed on, realizing Meghan Keough (game-high 14 points) couldn't carry the Gators alone.
The Wildcats (22-4) finished strong thanks to some timely offense from Ashley Carey and Caitlin Deboer, who each scored 11.
"Intensity really kicked in at the end of the third quarter," Carey said. "We realized we had to finish strong."
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315.