Panthers Cinderella team of the season

Wharton and Plant aren't facing each other in the regular season, which concludes Friday.

Published February 1, 2007

TAMPA - Barring a couple of magical playoff runs, the most highly anticipated matchup in Hillsborough County won't occur this season.

Wharton and Plant, which have combined for 41 wins, three losses and two No. 1 district tournament seeds, aren't facing each other in the regular season, which concludes Friday.

And unless both reach the Class 5A title game, the earliest they could meet in the playoffs, their respective fans will be left to debate over which should rightfully claim county supremacy.

"We'd more than welcome the opportunity to play 'em," Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli said. "I'm sure it would've been a good game."

At the season's outset, few could have guessed the significance of a Wildcats-Panthers matchup. With five returning starters, Wharton 20-2, sixth in the state's latest 5A poll, was projected to be among the county's best. But 10th-ranked Plant (21-1), winner of eight games last season, has been the area's most improbable story.

"We've got something special going on here," veteran Panthers coach Mike Phillips said. "I'm totally surprised. I knew we were going to be a decent high school basketball team, but to win 20 games and now 21 games ..."

Some of the keys to the Panthers' revival are more obvious than others. Sophomore Sheldon Cooley (17.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg), a 6-foot-3 Robinson transfer, has had a profound impact, and emerged as a sleek complement to bulky (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) but agile junior Chandler Flom (12.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

But contributing in more subtle ways have been supporting players such as point guard Kevin James, averaging 3.7 assists and only 2.2 turnovers; and senior guard Ben Powers, the team's best 3-point shooter (30-for-71). In Friday's 53-52 victory over District 10 rival Blake, Powers hit four free throws in the final minute to help clinch things.

"Why are we winning? I've got kids doing their role, and I've got kids coming off the bench," Phillips said. "We play 10-12 kids per game."

RAIDER RESURGENCE: The resurgence of Plant City's program continued with Friday's 62-61 home loss to undefeated Lakeland, when the Raiders led nearly the entire second half and had two chances for the winning basket in the final 12 seconds.

Lakeland had defeated 18 of its previous 21 opponents by double-digit margins. Plant City, 8-16 two seasons ago, was 14-8 entering Wednesday's game at Armwood. With the No. 3 seed and home-court advantage in next week's Class 6A, District 8 tournament, the Raiders have a legitimate shot at their first playoff berth since 1993.

HIMELY NEARING 1,000: Leto may possess the county's hottest player in 6-3 senior Joelys Himely, who needs four points Friday against Sickles to reach 1,000 for his career.

Himely, averaging a double double (17.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg) for the 14-10 Falcons, has 59 points and 31 rebounds in his past two games - both victories. He scored a career-best 30 last week in a 61-53 win against Middleton.

"The last seven or eight games, he's really started to come on; he's played the best basketball of his career," Falcons coach Todd Price said. "And he's making baskets when we need them."

ODDS AND ENDS: Tonelli earned his 200th victory at the school Jan. 16, when the Wildcats topped King, 76-47. ... Cooley nearly achieved his second triple double of the season in Tuesday's 59-44 win against Armwood, collecting 17 points, nine rebounds and seven steals.

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@sptimes.com.