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Wildcats reach final four

The third-year school holds off Avon Park for a 58-53 win.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002

The third-year school holds off Avon Park for a 58-53 win.

AVON PARK -- It was more sauna than gym, with more than 1,100 fans packed to the rafters -- half wearing the blue and white of Wesley Chapel.

The Wildcats and host Avon Park came out slugging in Saturday's Class 3A, Region 3 final, throwing down a combined nine 3-pointers in the first quarter alone.

Then the heat and humidity took over. The air conditioner failed and the floor glistened. Both teams looked battered and exhausted midway through the third quarter.

Seconds passed like minutes, and shot after shot clanked off the rims in the second half. The Wildcats couldn't quite put it away, and the Red Devils couldn't quite reclaim the lead. Finally, just as they have throughout this amazing postseason run, the 'Cats found a way to survive.

Hello Lakeland.

Wesley Chapel escaped Avon Park with a 58-53 regional final victory to secure the third-year school's first trip to the state semifinals, which begin with Wednesday's Class 3A matchup against St. Augustine Nease (30-3) at the Lakeland Center.

And the Wildcats (25-8) beat the Red Devils (12-14) despite two fouls called on Zach Mills going for steals in the last 47 seconds, endangering a three-point lead. But Avon Park 5-foot-4 guard Kirk Taylor, whose offensive and defensive heroics carried his team, faltered at the line and missed two of the four shots. Wesley Chapel didn't do so well at the line, either. David Simpson went 1-for-2, Greg Harrison went 0-for-2 and Sandor Riholm went 1-for-2 in the last 39 seconds. It was Mills who put it away, going 2-for-2 at the line with three seconds left.

When the buzzer sounded, Wildcats players and more than a hundred fans moshed at halfcourt, jumping up and down in a frenzied celebration of another remarkable postseason magic act.

"I can't believe it," senior point guard Spencer Honeycutt said. "I thought they were coming back. We barely pulled it off. We got away with one. They were coming back. They fought hard all the way.

"I'm worn out and I didn't even play the whole game."

How does it feel to be going to Lakeland?

"I still can't believe it," he said.

On the road, against a hostile crowd, under stifling conditions, Wesley Chapel jumped out to a 24-15 first-quarter lead, surrendered it briefly in the second quarter, and then regained and held the lead throughout the second half despite going 8-for-18 at the line.

Eric Sorensen hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter to lead Wesley Chapel with 11 points.

"You believed in each other," Wildcats coach Kent Mills told his team in the locker room. "You finished the job, you found a way to do what you had to do."

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