LAKELAND — They surrendered size down low, but didn’t give a proverbial inch. They surrendered sleekness on the perimeter, but never let the tempo get out of second gear.
Yet the one thing the Wharton Wildcats couldn’t afford to surrender — their shooting touch — abandoned them for more than 10 long minutes Friday night at the Lakeland Center.
Facing a Goliath-like roster from South Miami High, the ’Cats (25-5) slung bricks for one costly stretch in the Class 8A semifinal, and it cost them in a 46-38 loss.
“We had some good looks, we had some shots,” said Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, whose 16-year-old program was making its final four debut with its winningest senior class. “It’s kind of hard to explain, I don’t know.”
Ahead 16-13 after the first quarter, which ended with a C.J. McGill 3-pointer at the horn, the ’Cats went without a field goal until the 5:45 mark of the third, when McGill hit a short jumper. By then, it was 32-20 South Miami.
The Cobras ultimately would increase their lead to 40-20 before Wharton ended things with a valiant 18-6 run. For the game, the ’Cats shot 14-for-42 from the floor — including 0-for-9 in the second quarter — after hitting seven of their first 12 shots.
“I felt like we had a comfortable lead,” said McGill, whose club forced five early turnovers en route to an 11-2 lead. “I felt like we had the game under control, and they just jumped out on us.”
Specifically, the Cobras (28-2) took better care of the ball, employed a matchup zone that pushed Wharton farther from the basket, and established 6-foot-9, 240-pound Virginia Commonwealth signee Antravious Simmons (16 points, 15 rebounds) down low.
“It happened kind of fast, too,” Tonelli said.
But even as its deficit reached double digits, Wharton never abandoned its methodical halfcourt offense. Meantime, South Miami grew frigid from the floor, managing only five second-half field goals.
“I think we got a little too happy and thought the game was over,” Cobras coach Robert Doctor said.
When reserve Drew Vanderbrook hit a pair of free throws and followed with an inside basket with 5:21 remaining, Wharton’s deficit had been trimmed to 10. Senior Jaken Grier’s trey made it 44-35 with 3:10 to go.
Over the next 2 1/2 minutes, South Miami would commit three turnovers, and miss a field goal and free throw. The last turnover was converted into a layup by Sir Patrick Reynolds with 43 ticks remaining, making it 44-38.
But Wharton fouled no one the rest of the way, failing to get the ball out of the hands of South Miami’s best free-throw shooters. A lay-in by Simmons, his only second-half field goal, provided the final margin.
“I was extremely proud of the fact that these guys just fought and battled,” Tonelli said. “For 16 minutes in the second half, we laid it on the line.”