TAMPA A.J. Astroth had no idea what he was doing down the stretch as he helped lead Wharton to a 62-57 win against Countryside in the final of the Alonso Holiday Classic.
He didn't know that he brought the Wildcats back from a deficit with 10 of his game-high 25 points in the final eight minutes. He didn't realize his domination, scoring from the inside and the free throw line throughout the final quarter. He was surprised when he saw the numbers.
"I wasn't asking for the ball but I wasn't going to give it up, either," Astroth said. "I was ready to do anything for this one. I am surprised I did all that in the fourth quarter."
Wharton (14-1) crawled out of the game and trailed the Cougars, 12-0, before Damian Dixon nailed a 3-pointer with less than four minutes left in the first quarter to put Wharton on the board. From that point on, it was a matter of Wharton trying to claw back for its second tournament championship in two weeks. The Wildcats won the Berkeley Basketball Invitational last week.
Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli wasn't overly pleased with his team's performance, but he was willing to take the win.
"We have got to play better than this," Tonelli said. "I wasn't pleased about falling down like we did, but it was great to come back. A.J. was great down the stretch and he sensed that there was some urgency and took it from there."
Countryside (10-4) exploded from the start as guard Dino Tabakovic was hard to handle. Tabakovic had 19 points as the Cougars took a 34-30 lead into halftime, but Countryside coach Myron Huey said Tabakovic couldn't stay on fire all night and he wasn't getting a lot of help from teammates.
"Dino is a streaky shooter," Huey said. "This is how our team has played all year. Playing so close to a team as good as Wharton, this shows us that we can step it up once the district games start."
Tabakovic was held to four points in the second half as the Wharton defense closed in on him. Jared Low had seven of his 11 points late in the fourth quarter to keep Countryside close.
After the Cougars jumped out to their early lead, Astroth and Dixon (21 points) started pecking away. Trailing by four going into the second half, short jumpers by Xavier Owens and Dixon tied it, but Countryside came back with a short follow by Kyle Kinnear and a layup from Diomi Roberts.
That's when the seesaw began. The Wildcats scored six straight, capped by a layup by Dixon off a blind feed from Astroth to take their first lead. After a pair of free throws from Andrew Sheldon tied it at 40, Wharton scored on an Astroth free throw, but Countryside responded with four straight points.
But the Wildcats came back with six straight points to lead 47-44 at the end of the third quarter.
That's when Astroth took over. Countryside hung tough, and cut the lead to one with less than three minutes to play, but a layup by Owens followed by a pair of free throws from Astroth put the game away.
In the consolation game, Bloomingdale topped Wesley Chapel 58-51 behind 17 points from Matt Farnsworth.
Dixon was named tournament Most Valuable Player and the all-tournament team consisted of Astroth, Countryside's Kinnear and Tabakovic, Bloomingdale's Farnsworth, and Max Klein (East Lake).