Eight Aiken-area high school boys’ basketball teams qualified for the playoffs this season, and after two rounds, three remain alive in the pursuit of a state title.
The squads from Midland Valley, Wagener-Salley and Ridge Spring-Monetta were knocked out in the first round, which opened play last week. After winning their 2013 postseason debuts short-handed, the teams from Aiken High and Strom Thurmond saw tremendous seasons come to an end in the Lower State quarterfinals.
The Rebels (19-7) fell behind Darlington early before waging a furious comeback, tying the game early in the fourth quarter. But the toll it took to get back to even left the Rebels a step slow, and Darlington pulled away in the end to advance to the Class AAA Lower State semifinals.
Aiken (17-9) was faced with a similar scenario, but its game was at Goose Creek, and unlike Strom Thurmond which got back star Daquarius Johnson from an ankle injury, the Hornets had to play another game without top scorer Shawn Moore, key big man Stacy Toole and also lost Jordan Habersham to illness. In spite of the tall odds against it, Aiken trimmed what was a 14-point deficit after three quarters to just three late in the final period but got no closer, ending any hopes of returning to the Class AAAA Lower State championship game for a second consecutive year.
A team that can make it to the Florence Civic Center to vie for the Class AAAA Lower State title is North Augusta. The Yellow Jackets had to wage an amazing comeback in their playoff opener against Richland Northeast just to make it to the second round. But they were in complete control once they got there, dominating West Ashley 55-38.
After playing their first two postseason games at home, the Yellow Jackets (19-6) will hit the road tonight for a Lower State semifinal game. They’ll head to Sumter to face a 16-9 Gamecocks squad that beat North Augusta’s Region 5-AAAA rival Dutch Fork and Bluffton to advance to this stage of the playoff bracket.
Sumter’s led by 6-foot-4 big man Auntrell Holloway, who can dominate a game inside the paint.
Fortunately for North Augusta, it has Tavarez Hall, an interior player of its own who can match up well with Holloway. One of the biggest challenges for Hall is staying out of foul trouble, but when he does, he can set the pace of play in the Yellow Jackets’ games. He’s a big part of an ensemble squad, which gets big contributions from ultra athletic players like TJ Sheppard, Steven Copeland, Kenny Finley and has an up-and-coming player in Christian Davis initiating the offense.
“They have worked very hard, and they have a confidence about themselves and what they can do,” North Augusta head coach Al Young said following the win over West Ashley. “We have a lot of ability, and if we are playing well – especially defensively and rebounding – we have what it takes to go all the way.”
The North Augusta-Sumter matchup will tip-off at 7 p.m. The winner will advance to play the victor of the game between Goose Creek and Ridge View Friday in the Lower State title game.
Silver Bluff is also trying to get to the Lower State title game in Florence. The Bulldogs (13-10) are vying for the Class AA title.
Unlike North Augusta, Silver Bluff played its first two playoff games of the 2013 campaign away from Petticoat Junction, securing wins over Battery Creek and most recently Calhoun County. After knocking off the Region 5-AA champion Saturday, the Bulldogs will return home to face another Region 5-AA rival on Wednesday, when they host Wade Hampton. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“It shows you how much of a coin toss this region was,” Silver Bluff head coach Robbie McKenzie said of the Lower State semifinal after his squad won a rubber match with Calhoun County and Wade Hampton beat Edisto, which finished second in the region ahead of both of Wednesday’s competitors.
McKenzie is confident about the matchup with Wade Hampton, just as he was about the game against Calhoun County. Part of that is because of the familiarity between programs and the Bulldogs’ track record of success. It’s also because of the high level his team is playing at, hitting a good percentage of its shots – always important for a perimeter-oriented squad – and the poise it has displayed under pressure. Led by top scorers Donte Wright and Jaylen Lawrence, the Bulldogs have met every challenge posed to them in the postseason.
Now they’ll try to make it to the Lower State title game – to be played on Saturday – with a rubber game against Wade Hampton (12-10). The Bulldogs won the first meeting of the season between the teams on their home court, 55-45 on Jan. 8. They lost in the Jan. 25 rematch on the road, 58-55. But McKenzie said that was a game his team let slip away with one bad quarter.
“We really outplayed them in seven of eight quarters this season,” McKenzie said.
While Silver Bluff has been playing its best basketball of the season, no team is hotter than Fox Creek is at the moment. The Predators (20-6) have won 15 games in a row and haven’t suffered a setback since the calendar changed to 2013. They’ll put the season on the line tonight when they travel to Lewisville High School, just outside of Rock Hill, for a 7 p.m. game.
While they’ve struggled to dispatch their first two playoff opponents, it’s a good sign that the Predators are finding ways to pull out wins with clutch performances down the stretch. In the playoff opener, a 59-56 win over McBee, Fox Creek overcame a 10-0 game-starting run by its opponent to prevail. In a 65-60 win over McCormick, Chris Harmon scored seven points down the stretch to lead his team to another victory.
Even though Harmon came up big for the Predators, they’re a balanced team with capable scorers like Marques Sumner, Brandyn Quiller and DJ Curry able to go off and take over a game. Against Lewisville (13-11), they’ll face a team that has roared past its first two postseason opponents. The Lions routed Fox Creek’s Region 4-A rival Ridge Spring-Monetta 72-39, before cruising past Greenville Tech 78-58. Lewisville is led by guards Dre Bailey and Qua Walls, but also has some big players listed on the roster including Deveeon Corbeam (6-7), Garrett Mullis (6-6) and Cody Montgomery (6-4). Fox Creek isn’t the biggest team and could be challenged if those players have good games in the paint. The winner of this game will face either Christ Church or C.A. Johnson in the Upper State championship game on Friday at the Bi-lo Center in Greenville.
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.