By Kyle LoJacono
The Wharton boys basketball team had a lot to play for against Plant Jan. 8.
Not only are the squads Class 8A-District 7 rivals, but the Panthers (8-10, 4-4) were the last team to beat the Wildcats (17-2, 8-0) at home in the regular season, winning 53-42 last January.
“We’ve rarely lost here, so we remembered,” said senior point guard CJ McGill. “When they beat us last year it was a big sting. We didn’t want to let it happen again.”
Wharton had also gone 3-2 at its two tournaments during the Winter Break, giving the Wildcats more motivation to get back on track.
“We played some tough competition in those tournaments, and we learned some good things about our teams that’ll help us down the stretch,” said Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli. “I’m pretty encouraged by where we’re at and the direction we’re going.”
Both teams started sluggishly, with Plant scoring the first points 2:37 into the first quarter. The Panthers jumped ahead 4-0, but the Wildcats fought back to take a 21-20 lead it would never give up on junior forward Chase Litton’s layup about a minute before halftime.
“We just started playing harder, competing more on defense and executing on offense,” McGill said. “We just started playing as a team.”
Much of the energy, not to mention scoring, came from McGill in the second quarter. He put up eight of his team-high 20 points in the period with quickness Plant couldn’t contain.
“CJ kind of got us going toward the end of the second quarter,” Tonelli said. “He got some penetration and hit some shots and made some nice passes. That helped us out. … He’s really been playing at a good, high level down the stretch like you’d expect and hope he’d do as a senior.”
Wharton stretched out its lead to 19 points near the start of the fourth quarter, but the Panthers closed the score to single digits in the final minutes.
“In the second half we got the game in control, and it’s very disappointing that we let it get down as low as we did,” Tonelli said. “We had some very careless, poor turnovers. We missed some free throws. We made some bad decisions, and not just offensively, but defensively too.”
Tonelli said that shows they have a lot of work to do.
“They don’t need to think they’re too good based on their record,” Tonelli said. “There are a lot of things in a lot of areas that we need to improve on dramatically down the stretch. … Can’t be dwelling on our record because every team we line up against is going to come after us that much harder.”
McGill finished with eight assists and four rebounds to go with his 20 points.
Senior forward/guard Sir Patrick Reynolds had five rebounds and 16 points, 14 after halftime. Senior guard Jaken Grier scored 15, while Litton pulled down six rebounds.
Plant defeated Wharton in the girls matchup 42-25.
The Wildcats (9-8, 4-3) could not get shots to fall, hitting just 10 from the field all night. The Panthers (14-5, 6-1) led 14-2 to end the first quarter and never looked back.
Wharton senior guard Allison Mitchell and senior center Kelly Brown each scored seven, while sophomore guard Rachel Cox had five points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
The Wildcats play at district opponent Newsome Jan. 18. Girls start at 6:30 p.m. followed by the boys around 8 p.m.
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