Gaither converts its free throws to beat Chamberlain 61-59 in the championship.
By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002
TAMPA -- Gaither and Chamberlain had been in this situation before.
Even with a 10-point lead at the start of the second half, Gaither wasn't taking its toughest rival lightly at the Chamberlain Christmas Tournament on Saturday.
"We knew they were going to press us," senior forward Brandon Harrison said.
The Chiefs (8-2) did throw on the fullcourt press, which resulted in a 7-0 run that turned the game around. Tied at 53 with two minutes left, Gaither relied on its biggest strength -- free throws -- and defeated Chamberlain 61-59 to win the title.
The only thing different between this game and the one Dec. 11, in which Gaither (6-3) beat Chamberlain in another close one, was one player. The Cowboys, who made 27 of 32 free throws, played without their leader, senior guard Antonio Russell, who was suspended from school for disciplinary reasons and will return to the team in mid January.
"To play a game like this without one of our better players was a great team win for us," Gaither coach Dwayne Olinger said. "I don't want to minimize the importance of him being here or not being here, but we really stepped up and played together."
One of the key players was Gaither sophomore Chris Bonner.
He scored only six points, but four came during the last two minutes. He made a free throw then followed with a layup to help the Cowboys pull away.
"(Bonner) really stepped up," Harrison said. "Coach gets on him a lot because he sees he can be a better player."
Chamberlain's Ryan Jennings countered with 3-pointers with 57.7 and 10 seconds left, but with 7.9 left, Bonner had the final word with a free throw to put Gaither ahead by two. The Chiefs frantically scrambled to make a shot but failed as the buzzer sounded. "That was just us going hard to the basket, trying to get there before the defense," Chamberlain coach Doug Aplin said. "The rebound almost went in, but we had missed a few right before that. We've got to make those shots."
Chamberlain also committed an uncharacteristic number of fouls (22), which gave Gaither the opportunity to have one of its strongest games at the line. Josh Sims (19 points) and Harrison (18) led the Cowboys, and Jennings scored a game-high 24 points.
In earlier games, Hillsborough's Tyrone Evans had 12 points and 15 rebounds as the Terriers defeated Riverview 59-55.
Sickles senior guard Channing Pittman scored 19 as the Gryphons beat Tampa Bay Tech 62-55.