For three quarters of Thursday’s Class 6A State semifinal clash with Martin County, Wharton High looked like the better basketball team. The Wildcats’ defense was just a little bit better, the offense was more accurate shooting the ball and Wharton always seemed on the verge of a putting the Tigers in a hole so deep they wouldn’t be able to climb out of it.
Then, in less than a minute, everything changed, and Wharton saw its hopes of advancing to the first State championship game in school history evaporate.
Led by a trio of seniors and a stifling press, Martin County (26-4) turned the game in their favor to start the fourth quarter and the Wildcats never recovered, falling 52-47 at the RP Lending Center in Lakeland.
Martin County’s Jayden Pressey, who was 0-for-6 from three-point range, buried a wide-open triple from the corner to start the fourth quarter, and the Tigers began pressing, and a slew of Wildcat turnovers and mistakes followed. The Tigers made free throws and another bucket inside, and in 57 seconds had spun off an 8-2 run to give Martin County a 39-36 advantage with 7:03 remaining in the game.
The Wildcats, who finished 28-3, never led again.
“We weren’t in our press attack alignment,” Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli said. “and we had some guys out of position in the process. That’s it. It’s that simple. We had a plan, we knew what we wanted to do, we knew what they were running, we just didn’t get guys in the right spot. It just made it that much more difficult to execute what we needed to do.”
The press overwhelmed Wharton, which already had 13 turnovers heading into the last quarter but committed seven more with the heat turned up.
“When we were able to get the ball out of (Wharton point guard Trent Lincoln’s) hands, they got a little helter-skelter,” said Martin County coach John Leon. “We had to take a chance with the press. If we hadn’t, I’d be kicking myself.”
Pressey had all nine of his points in the fourth quarter, including a bullish drive to the basket to give Martin County a 45-39 lead with four minutes left. Another Pressey basket off a turnover stretched the Tigers’ lead to 49-41.
Ryan Davis, a thorn in the Wildcats’ side all night, led Martin County with 18 points and seven assists.
After shooting just 24 percent in the first half, the Tigers shot 67 percent in the second half, and were scorching hot in the fourth quarter, making 8 of 10 shots.
For three quarters, however, it looked like it might be Wharton’s night. They held the Tigers to one basket in the first quarter and led 8-3, and behind strong play from seniors Trevor Dyson and Carlos Nesbitt, forged a 16-15 lead at the half.
The third quarter was back and forth, and midway through, Chandler Davis canned a three-pointer and gave Wharton its biggest lead, 29-22, of the night.
However, despite eight points in the quarter from Dyson, Martin County was able to rally and keep it close heading to the fateful fourth.
Dyson, who was 4 of 6 from three-point range, and Davis, a junior, each scored 16 points to lead Wharton.
Dyson added 11 rebounds, while Nesbitt chipped in seven points and eight rebounds. Both seniors played all 32 minutes.
“I told the guys afterwards they exceeded my wildest expectations,” Tonelli said. “Not that I didn’t think they were capable. We were Conference champs, District champs and Region champs. The only goal we fell short of was being State champs. But there’s a lot of guys that play basketball and can’t say they are any of those things.”