By BILL BLITMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
TAMPA -- When they played the first 7:17 of the first quarter scoreless and finishedwithtwo points, the Wharton Wildcats were in need of someone to step up on offense in the District 11 final.
The spark came from Merari DeJesus, who scored 13 of her game-high 19 points in the second quarter,lifting second-seeded Wharton over No. 1 Plant 40-35 on Saturday at Hillsborough's Memorial Gym.
"We always talk about Candice Dupree because she is the main girl, but you know what, Merari is a senior and I am going to miss her and she kept us in that ballgame,"Wildcats coach Eddie Henderson said.
"She kept everything under control like I asked her to. She has been with me for four years and I wanted her to have one more district championship before she left.
"Merari saved us, yes she did," Henderson said. "It wasn't the first time and it probably will not be the last time."
Dupree keptWharton (19-7) from getting blown out in the first quarter. She had three blocked shots and three steals, limiting the Panthers (15-6) advantage to 8-2 after the first eight minutes. She finished the game with 14 points.
"It was a sluggish first quarter because they were nervous, but they knew in the huddle that they were confident that they were going to make a game of it," Henderson said. "Plant had a good game plan and it almost worked."
After a jumper by junior Cassie Gonzalez gave the Panthers a 10-2 lead, DeJesus took over for Wharton.
She scored two layups, went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and banked in a three-point shot with 6 seconds left in the quarter as the Wildcats took a 19-15 lead into the locker room.
Plant came out with a second-half surge behind Christena Pyle's eight third-quarter points as the Panthers reclaimed the lead, 31-29, entering the final quarter.
A free throw by Gonzalez gave Plant a 35-31 advantage with 5:29 left in the game, then the Wharton defense held the Panthers scoreless for the remainder ofthe action. The Wildcats rambled off the final nine points.
DeJesus had the key play with a steal and lay-in at the 1:31 mark for a 37-35 lead. Then Ivana Pesic made 3 of 4 foul shots in the final minute to seal the win and set the Wharton team into a frenzy.
The team embraced,then broke into a version of Queen's "We are the Champions.'
Three years ago, the Wildcats would have crumbled under the pressure, Henderson said.
"They held together, they stuck together and I told them if you play smart basketball, the championship is yours.
"I knew it was going to be a tough game. I sat around my house all day today thinking what are we going to do. My stomach was in knots because it was going to be a tough game, and I knew it was going to be.
"The girls came through and they didn't give up, and that is all I can say," Henderson said. "I'm about to be 35 years old and my heart cannot take this."