TAMPA – Unlike early-December’s lopsided, 19-point Wharton victory, Friday night’s boys basketball matchup between Freedom and the Wildcats was a back-and-forth affair, fitting of the neighborhood rivalry atmosphere on display in the Patriots’ gym. 

Everything that went wrong in the first meeting for Freedom — an early deficit that steadily grew, slip-ups on defense and poor decision making — has disappeared since the Dec. 4 meeting. The Patriots responded with an eight-game win streak leading to the rematch, including a tournament victory in the Calvary Christian Shootout over the holiday break. 

Friday, they made it nine-straight. After four fourth quarter lead changes, Patriot senior Xavier Betancourt stepped back from a pair of defenders to create space and drained a three-pointer with less than 10 seconds remaining to give the Patriots a 51-49 victory.

The win pulled Freedom into a first-place tie with Wharton in Class 8, District.

“The first time when we lost (to Wharton) we didn’t really play like ourselves,” Betancourt said. “We came in nervous because of how packed and loud their gym was; this time we were prepared and hungry inside, wanting to let everything out.” 

Freedom (12-1, 8-1 in 8A-8) drew the game to a late tie at 46-all as Kevin Rodriguez (game-high 17 points) drained a three-pointer.

Jasper Floyd shoots over a Freedom defender.

Then with under a minute to play, the last swing of momentum to go Wharton’s way came via an impressive Carr Thiam (nine points) rejection of a Freedom layup attempt under the basket, and a breakaway basket-and-1 from Salim Richardson.

However, Freedom and a boisterous home-court fanbase was not to be denied as Trevian Hinson converted a late foul into two free throws to pull Freedom within 49-48, and Betancourt finished the lead changes with his game-winning three-pointer. 

“We used that loss to Wharton as motivation since that game, just like we’ve been motivated by the good things that have happened since,” Freedom coach Ken Angel said. “Anytime we play Wharton, it’s an emotion-filled game. These guys are neighborhood buddies, they see each other all the time, and everyone wants to win this game when we play.” 

Wharton (11-3, 8-1) got a team-high 14 points from Darin Green, and Jasper Floyd had 11 points in the loss.

For more on the game, make sure you check out our story in the Jan. 25 edition of the Neighborhood News.

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