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TAMPA -- The way the Wharton Wildcats were embracing, holding back tears and gushing over their victory against Leto on Thursday, one would think they had just swept the whole tournament.
Nope, they still have one more game to go. But this was by far the Wildcats' most emotional contest of the season and may still be by tournament's end.
Wharton beat the Falcons 57-51, made sweeter by a loss to Leto (19-8) at home earlier this season. The Wildcats (12-12) have struggled with the loss of eight seniors (three starters), conflicts among teammates and an all-around letdown of a year to reach .500 for the first time by winning the gritty semifinal.
"You don't know how much drama we've had to overcome to get here," senior guard Whitney Burton said. "With all the problems on the team, to come here as the third seed and beat the second seed, as especially against our rivals, it's just so wonderful."
Burton fueled Wharton's second-half surge with two 3-pointers and two jump shots, and scored a game-high 23. Junior center Willamina Folks added 17 and freshman Sarah Burkett had nine.
The Wildcats focused on containing Leto's Yarenis Blanco, a 5-foot-4 buzzsaw and one of the county's leading scorers. She led the Falcons with 15 points, but had a tough time making shots in the first half.
Sheena Kee stepped up for the Falcons with nine points, and Holly Manninen, Sandy Stout and Amber Eihardt each scored eight.
The Wildcats were surprised to find themselves in position to three-peat a district title and are additionally driven by the retirement of their coach, Eddie Henderson. After six years with Wharton, Henderson decided to make this season his last so he could spend more time with his family and pursue a master's degree.
Saturday, Wharton will face top-seed King, which defeated Hillsborough 46-34 in Thursday's other semifinal.
The Lions (19-4) also pulled away with a strong second half, despite what coach Eric Brooks thought was a shaky performance. The Terriers couldn't match King's speed and hot outside shooting, and looked wilted by the final quarter.
Brooks said he looks forward to putting his girls' size and speed up against Wharton's, which is very similar. Brooks is a former protege of Henderson's, serving as his assistant three years ago.
-- EMILY NIPPS
FORT MEADE -- For the first time in any sport this school year, Tampa Prep defeated Berkeley Prep, but the Terrapins had to drive to Fort Meade to do it.
After the 36-26 semifinal victory, Tampa Prep coach LeeAnn Grove said her team didn't mind the 11/2-hour trip. "We came in really pumped up and we executed very well," Grove said. "We just played great defense the whole game. It was very satisfying."
It also snapped a two-game losing streak to the Bucs and set up Saturday night's district final at Fort Meade against Academy of the Holy Names, which defeated Frostproof 73-27 in its semifinal.
"It seems kind of silly for two Tampa teams to have to drive all the way to Fort Meade to play a basketball game," Grove said. "But we'll be happy to be there Saturday night."
On Thursday, Tampa Prep (11-14) pulled away in the second and third periods, outscoring the Bucs 20-8 in that span and taking a 25-14 lead into the fourth quarter. Berkeley never got within eight points in the final minutes.
The victory was another indication of the Terps' turnaround. Tampa Prep went on a six-game losing streak near the season's end but has since gone 4-1.
Tampa Prep faces a daunting task Saturday. Academy (19-8, 11-0 2A-11) defeated the Terrapins twice in the regular season by 23 and 14 points.
"I have a lot of juniors and seniors, but they lacked court experience," Grove said. "Just by practicing and playing games through this season, they've matured and learned the game of basketball."
-- SCOTT PURKS
Riverview took Sarasota Riverview to overtime before losing 64-62 in Venice. In the other semifinal, Bloomingdale beat Gaither 52-45. The Bulls will face Sarasota Riverview in Saturday's final at 7:30.
-- Times staff