By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002
TAMPA -- If there's one thing that can be said about Friday night's A.P. Leto Holiday Classic semifinal between Wharton and Durant, it's that the Wildcats were warned.
Head coach Tommy Tonelli sat them down in the locker room before the game and told his team that the squad that played 32 minutes with no letdowns was going to win. The team that took a couple minutes off -- or 8 minutes in this case -- was headed to the consolation bracket.
It's a safe bet Tonelli would trade his prophetic skills for a strong first quarter. Durant outscored Wharton 19-3 in the first minutes, holding the Wildcats to a Maurice Johnson layup and a Branan Anderson free throw en route to a 72-56 victory. The Cougars (12-1) will play Hillsborough, 76-62 winners against Leto, in tonight's championship game at 8 at Pierce Middle School.
"I told our guys this was not the type of team we could come out not ready against," Tonelli said. "This is the best team we've faced all year. It's no fluke that they're 12-1. I thought that if we could play with purpose for 32 minutes we could get the job done."
Instead it was Durant that played with purpose from the opening tip, forcing eight turnovers in the first quarter, three that led to six Cougar points. Junior R.L. Bond, who set a tournament record with 34 points Thursday night, connected for 10 in the first quarter before finishing with 31. Bond needs 10 points in the championship game to break the tournament record for total points in three games.
Wharton (10-4) played the Cougars even, and sometimes better, the remainder of the game, but the deficit was too large to overcome. The Wildcats were able to cut the lead to 14, courtesy of a nine-point spurt in the third quarter, but that was as close as they would come.
"Take away that first quarter and I'm very proud of the effort from the second quarter on," Tonelli said. "I thought we had them on the verge at one time. I thought we needed one more defensive stand and one more conversion on offense to get it into single digits. Once you get there, anything can happen."