By Jeff Odom
The Wharton boys basketball team started fast and finished strong against South Miami in the Class 8A state semifinals Mar. 1.
The Wildcats (25-5), however, were outdone by everything in-between.
Despite a dominating 11-2 run to open the game, Wharton’s offense went ice cold in the second and third quarters against the Cobras’ (28-2) aggressive defense en route to a 46-38 loss at the Lakeland Center.
“We just fell eight points short,” said Wildcats senior point guard CJ McGill (seven points). “I felt good at the time. I felt like we had a comfortable lead, and I felt like we had the game under control. They just jumped out on us.”
Wharton’s nine-point lead quickly evaporated with five turnovers in the second half of the opening period.
South Miami’s suffocating defense and height advantage forced the Wildcats to settle for outside shots that refused to fall, going 0-of-9 from the field during a 12-minute period that included the entire second quarter.
The Wildcats finished 14-of-42 from the field after hitting seven of their first 12 shots.
“Usually we knock down those shots,” McGill said. “For some reason, we just couldn’t get those.”
The Cobras had outscored Wharton 14-2 in the second quarter and went into halftime on a 25-7 run.
Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli credited South Miami’s size, which included seven players 6-feet or taller, and its forcefulness in the paint.
“They got a little more aggressive on defense and pushed us out a little further offensively and out of our comfort zone of where we like to operate,” Tonelli said. “It kind of happened fast, too. We had some opportunities, and I don’t know. I don’t think we made a continuous run. We had shots. We had opportunities. We just couldn’t capitalize.”
Things didn’t get much better for Wharton in the third.
The Cobras sustained much of their dominant play throughout the period and pulled away to a 20-point lead before the Wildcats could even muster back-to-back buckets with 1:45 in the quarter.
Senior forward/guard Sir Patrick Reynolds (eight points, five rebounds) said there was nowhere to go against South Miami.
“They turned up their defensive pressure, and I don’t think we were ready for that yet,” Reynolds said. “We couldn’t adjust as fast as they were and as fast as we thought we should have, but like I said, we should have executed the little things.”
The Wildcats refused to exit silently.
Jaken Grier (13 points, four rebounds) led the fourth-quarter charge with a pair of free throws to open the period and kept up the pace with a 3-pointer and another charity shot to keep Wharton’s 18-4 run — and season — alive.
“I thought we got back into the game,” Tonelli said. “We got into the game, we had it down to six points with a timeout, and it was a two possession game. Anything could’ve happened.”
But it was simply too late.
South Miami’s best shooters Antravious Simmons (16 points, 15 rebounds) and Joseph Lopez (11 points) helped the Cobras eat up enough clock during the final two minutes to oust the Wildcats from their first state final four appearance in the program’s 16-year history.
Tonelli praised South Miami for its talent level.
“They were as good as advertised,” Tonelli said. “They’ve got excellent players at virtually every position on the floor. … They just play well as a team, and they did a great job, and I totally compliment and credit them for the job they did.”
Reynolds echoed his coach and added that he was grateful to be a part of the winningest senior class the Wildcats have ever had.
“I’ve been here all four years and I’ve witnessed all four district championships, but just this year was amazing for me,” Reynolds said. “I knew we were going to come this far. I knew we were going to try and push hard and come out with the win, but we couldn’t do that. We just fell short.”
—Follow Jeff Odom on Twitter: @JOdomLaker