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Introducing the rulers of Pasco County basketball

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

Gulf point guard Joe Phillips and Ridgewood point guard Chris Halkitis are the best players in the county for one reason:

"If you were picking the best team," River Ridge coach Bill Linderman said. "You'd want those two on your team first."

Indeed, both are young junior guards who faced and met the high expectations of this season, leading their teams to the playoffs.

In Phillips' case, he helped lead the Bucs to the Class 4A, District 8 title -- the school's first district title and first playoff appearance in 39 years -- and did it by sweeping Halkitis' Sunshine Athletic Conference champion Rams in three games.

All eyes were on Halkitis before the season started, but Phillips burst onto the scene.

Phillips stood just 5 feet, 11/2 inches when he was a freshman called up to the varsity after six games. He's grown 71/2 inches since.

Known in a previous lifetime as strictly a 3-point bomber and a defensive liability, the junior emerged as a true playmaker this season.

Phillips averaged 13.4 points a game, sank 75 treys, set a record for assists at Gulf with 160, and led the team with 70 steals. Gulf's second win against Ridgewood came on a driving layup, something Phillips might not have been able to do in years past.

"I think he became a really complete player," Bucs coach Steve Feldman said. "The thing he was challenged on this year was to become a better man-to-man defender. ... He showed he wasn't a weak link on the court defensively, because early in his freshman and sophomore years we had to hide him defensively on the court."

Halkitis said he didn't truly play his best ball until after Christmas, helping the Rams win the Sunshine Athletic Conference championship, sweeping Wesley Chapel, a Class 3A state semifinalist, to do it.

"I was thinking a little bit too much out there," he said. "I relaxed and started hitting my shots a little more."

He averaged 14.7 points and led the county with 5.8 assists per game. And he shined when it counted, scoring 25 points and going 16-of-17 at the free throw line to beat Wesley Chapel with the SAC title at stake, and then scoring 14 in a playoff loss to Leesburg.

Said Ridgewood coach Gary Anders: "It seemed that against the really tough opponents, the tougher the game was, is when he really stepped it up."

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