JOHNSTON — After trailing by double digits on a number of occasions, the Strom Thurmond High School boys’ basketball team battled all the way back. The Rebels tied the score at 49-all less than a minute into the final quarter of Friday’s Class AAA second-round playoff game against Darlington.

From that point on, it was all Falcons, as they responded with a 9-0 run a few minutes later to pull away for a 73-64 victory that ended the Rebels’ season.

“We didn’t get back on defense, and they got quick baskets,” Strom Thurmond head coach Bo Rouse said as Darlington outscored his team 24-17 in the fourth quarter, possibly capitalizing on a Rebel squad that was running out of gas after mounting the comeback. “We worked hard, but it took something out of us to get back in it.”

It was a fast-paced game throughout, with the players on both teams displaying tremendous athleticism. The climb back from the deficit might have caused Strom Thurmond (19-7) players to go just a step slower, while also causing Darlington’s five on the floor to play with greater urgency.

“We got in transition and were able to finish,” said Falcons coach Ken Howle, whose team will play Myrtle Beach in the next round. “(Strom Thurmond) has remarkable athletes, and they played very physical. We made some plays and capitalized on mistakes they made.”

Darlington (18-6) had some impressive players as well, none more so than James Richardson. He scored a game-best 23 points and was the player finishing several of those transition opportunities, frequently with dunks that fired up the large contingent of Darlington fans that made the trip to Johnston. Richardson was one of four Falcons to score in double figures, with point guard Frankie Johnson posting most of his 14 points in the fourth quarter when he iced his team’s win at the free-throw line. Johnson was a perfect 8-for-8 at the charity stripe, where Darlington got a combined nine points from Markus Williams (13 points) and Cayland Howard (10 points).

In the first half, the Falcons built their big lead by dissecting the Rebels’ zone defense.

They used accurate passes and quality shooting from the perimeter to start the second quarter on a spurt, where they outscored the home team 10-2. They also used flashes of pressure at three-quarter court to force Strom Thurmond into some sloppy mistakes that caused empty possessions.

In spite of the miscues, the Rebels never quit and attacked the rim with vigor. In his first game back from a frightening ankle injury that sidelined him for the Rebels’ playoff opener, Daquarius Johnson led the charge. The long sophomore played limited minutes but still led his squad with 15 points.

“Johnson helped us,” Rouse said of the player who didn’t show any ill effects of the injury early on, flashing to the basket, ending one fastbreak with a two-handed jam and connecting on three 3-pointers.

Johnson and Deontrez Mealing will be two key players returning for the Rebels next season, but the core of this squad which won the Region 5-AAA championship will be lost to graduation. There were seven seniors on Strom Thurmond’s roster, and six of them scored in Friday’s loss.

Jasergio Kennion and Aaron Cook tallied 12 points apiece while fellow senior Baylor Jones followed a 20-point performance in the first round with 10 more against Darlington, making him the Rebels’ leading scorer in the playoffs. Brothers Hykeem and Ty Brooks as well as Josh Hamilton rounded out the Strom Thurmond scoring, combining for 15 points.

“My guys played hard, and I’m really proud of them, especially the seniors,” Rouse said.

“They’re the best group of seniors I’ve ever had and I’m going to miss them,” Rouse added, saying he told his team to be proud of what they accomplished this season. “They have nothing to hold their head down about. The sun will still shine tomorrow.”

DAR 19 21 9 24 – 73

ST 18 16 13 17 – 64

Darlington (18-6)—Frankie Johnson 2 8-8 14, James Richardson 9 4-9 23, Cayland Howard 2 6-9 10, Sidney Player 3 0-2 9, Markus Williams 5 3-5 13, Quentin Sims 2 0-0 4. Totals: 21 21-33 73.

3-Pointers: Player (3), Johnson (2), Richardson.

Strom Thurmond (19-7)—Hykeem Brooks 2 2-4 7, Jasergio Kennion 5 2-2 12, Josh Hamilton 2 0-0 4, Ty Brooks 1 2-2 4, Aaron Cook 4 3-4 12, Daquarius Johnson 6 0-0 15, Baylor Jones 3 4-5 10. Totals: 23 13-17 64.

3-Pointers: Johnson (3), Hykeem Brooks, Cook.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.