TAMPA — It was a slow start for Wharton in its region quarterfinal against Lakewood Ranch on Thursday. Things got better once the 3-pointers started falling, as they typically do for the Wildcats.
In the first half, though, the Spartans proved that two could play at that game. Lakewood Ranch knocked down three 3-pointers in the second quarter, trailing Wharton by only two just seconds before halftime.
But after the break, the Wildcats focused heavily on defense, and their deep shots kept falling as Wharton ran away with a 54-31 victory.
“We feel comfortable with a lot of our guys being able to shoot the 3,” coach Tommy Tonelli said. “We talked about it at halftime; we’re getting good shots, good looks. We just have to settle down and knock them.”
Tonelli admitted his team was a bit rattled coming into the matchup, which perhaps led to Wharton's cool start; the Wildcats had only five points in the first quarter, and the game was tied going into the second.
Wharton and Lakewood Ranch traded 3-pointers in the second quarter, but Wharton (25-3) began to pull away with an outside shot from Carr Thiam at the buzzer.
Wharton took a five-point lead into the break, and things only got worse for Lakewood Ranch from there. Wharton started the third quarter on a 10-0 run.
"(Coach) said just said keep doing what we're doing and be the tougher team. We were just focused on our defense," senior guard Josh Barnett said. "We've been practicing their plays for like a week. We knew what they were going to do, we just had to stay focused."
Lakewood Ranch (18-7) made two more shots from long range in the second half, both from Jaden Jones. Wharton, meanwhile, had five of its nine 3-pointers Thursday after the break. And in addition to outside shots, sophomore forward Trevor Dyson kept delivering in the paint.
“After Carr hit the first one, it just got us going,” Barnett said about Wharton’s 3-point shooting. “It’s very big. We get to spread the floor. We have small people, but our bigs can also shoot from outside. So it brings their bigs out.”
Tonelli said his team was initially challenged by how well Lakewood Ranch played zone defense, but he was proud of the way the Wildcats adjusted. Barnett and senior guard Gio Reyes led Wharton on offense with 13 points each, but four players ended the night with double-digit points.
The Wildcats proved Thursday they could score from anywhere, Tonelli said, and that's what makes them so tough to beat.
“It’s been that way all year. Guys step up. If they try to take somebody away, different guys are ready to step up,” he said. “I knew we were prepared, we just had to come out and play. And they did.”
Games 7 p.m. Tuesday.
7A: No. 3 Wharton at No. 2 Windermere
6A: No. 5 Charlotte at No. 1 East Lake
6A: No. 7 St. Petersburg at No. 3 Fort Myers
6A: No. 7 Lakeland at No. 3 Hillsborough
5A: No. 4 Port Charlotte at No. 1 Clearwater
5A: No. 3 Naples at No. 2 Jesuit
5A: No. 3 Land O’ Lakes at No. 2 Orlando Jones
4A: No. 5 Lakewood at No. 1 Tampa Catholic
4A: No. 4 Anclote at No. 1 Lake Highland Prep
3A: No. 4 Calvary Christian at No. 1 Community School of Naples
3A: No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 6 Fort Myers Canterbury
2A: No. 3 Cambridge Christian at No. 2 Bayshore Christian