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'Cats-Rams finally here

The game features the county's best trying to dictate style to the other.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Both teams play exceptional basketball. Both teams play winning basketball. They just don't play the same basketball.

Ridgewood likes to control the tempo, likes to be patient and deliberate on offense and likes to put other teams in a defensive stranglehold. Under coach Gary Anders, the Rams have worked this old-school formula to perfection en route to a 20-1 record.

Wesley Chapel likes to control the tempo, too, but by playing all-out, full-throttle basketball. Under coach Kent Mills, the Wildcats play that newfangled style, running and gunning and playing swarming defense in between fast breaks and 3-point bombs en route to a 19-1 record.

Tonight, the two will meet at Ridgewood for the first time this season and for the first time in an 11-day span. The rematch is Feb. 15 at Wesley Chapel.

"Hopefully, it will be a playoff atmosphere without the ramifications," Anders said. "It's just a good game for basketball in our area."

Actually, it's the best game. Both are the county's lone undefeated teams, so the Sunshine Athletic Conference championship hangs in the balance of these two contests. That's how it played out last season, when Ridgewood swept Wesley Chapel in two of the most exciting games in the county. And both teams return virtually intact.

But this rivalry means more than just deciding the county title.

For both teams, this series is the ideal test on the eve of postseason play. It is a non-district battle against a top team that can only help when district tournament play begins Feb. 18. Ridgewood is No. 5 in the state 4A poll, while Wesley Chapel moved up to No. 3 in the 3A poll.

Mills said the Ridgewood series last season -- played in the same tight space -- helped prepare his team for its run to the state semifinals.

"I think it absolutely gets us ready for a playoff atmosphere," he said. "When I called Gary and we had to switch the games (on the schedule), we said to each other, "Wouldn't it be nice if it came down to these two games again?'

"I'm very much expecting a playoff-type atmosphere (tonight) from the tipoff on."

This game is also the ultimate test of two competing theories of basketball. What made the series so exciting last season was watching each foe react to the style of the other. Wesley Chapel played an up-tempo game in the first half of both contests last season, but Ridgewood managed to take over and slow it down in the second half.

Yet both teams proved they could play the other's style: Ridgewood ran the floor while Wesley Chapel played a patient halfcourt game. In the end, the Rams won both games to win the SAC; Andrew Reed's tip-in at the buzzer ended a 59-57 chess match, while Chris Halkitis went 16-of-17 at the line to score 25 in a 70-60 win in the rematch. It was the first time in the SAC's 11 years that the title was decided head-to-head in the season finale.

Anders said one of his team's keys will be to limit Wildcats 3-point sharpshooter Eric Sorensen in the second half. Sorensen burned Ridgewood early in both games but not late. Another key, Anders said, is to be aggressive on defense.

"You can't just sit back and let them get wide-open looks or else they'll hit you with 3s all night long," the coach said. "It's the same things we emphasize in every big game, but they'll be even more important because of the quality of the opponent."

Mills said the key for his team is to find and then take advantage of a key mismatch and to keep the Rams from putting a significant run together.

"I think it's finding the right mismatch," he said, "and then controlling the momentum as much as the tempo."

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