New coach. Some new players. Same old results.
Wharton is headed back to the Class 6A boys basketball final four for the second straight season after dominating Charlotte 52-35 Friday night.
The Wildcats (24-6) will take on Palm Beach Dwyer (27-1) in their semifinal on Thursday, March 2 at either 6 or 8 p.m. at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
“It’s a great feeling,” said first-year coach and former Wharton star Shawn Vanzant, considered the best player in the program’s history. “I never made it as a player (although he did make it to the NCAA Final Four as a player for Butler University). I took over this year and a lot of guys didn’t know me. It took a while to bond, but once we got that camaraderie going, it’s been an amazing ride. I’m real proud of these boys.”
The Wildcats got three-pointers early from Lucean Milligan and Jayson Montgomery to take a 6-0 lead, and it wasn’t until 40 seconds were remaining in the first quarter that Charlotte scored its first basket.
When Milligan had to leave the game with early foul trouble, Christian Ayala came off the bench to sink two more three-pointers, and finished with eight points in the first half as Wharton opened up a 21-11 halftime lead.
“I might not have started, but I brought that will to get in the game and do whatever I could,” Ayala said. “I guarded, I knocked down a couple of threes, that’s what I do. It created some momentum, and the second half we had to just had to keep the foot on the gas pedal.”
“Christian is a big part of the team,” Vanzant said. “He’s a senior, great leadership, next-guy-up mentality. I know when I put Christian in the game, he’s going to make big plays.”
Charlotte shot only 4-for-18 in the first half, and by the time it started shooting better it was too late. The Wildcats opened the second half with a Chandler Davis bucket (off a Montgomery steal), and Mike Warnock made a trey to bump the lead to 26-11.
The Tarpons (16-14) made a run towards the end of the third quarter, but the Wildcats closed the quarter with an 8-0 run (thanks to three-pointers from Davis and Milligan) to make it 39-24 and out of reach as the defense clamped down.
“The game plan was to play defense and rebound because we were outsized a little bit,” Davis said. “They were bigger, but we held out ground..”
Charlotte’s frontline of Kirby Schmitz (6-foot-7), Chris Cornish (6-5) and John Gamble (6-6) combined to average 40 points this year, but were held to a total of 15 points by Wharton’s big men Karmello Branch and Davis, as well as sterling perimeter defense by the guards.