There’s an expression that the third time’s the charm. Members and fans of the Aiken High School girls’ basketball team hope that’s the case because the Hornets are looking for a breakthrough tonight. They’re playing in the Class AAAA Lower State championship game against Dutch Fork, the Region 5-AAAA rival that’s defeated Aiken twice this season.
There’s no shame in losing to the Silver Foxes; they’ve defeated every team they’ve faced this season. The defending state champions are 27-0 in the 2012-13 campaign and – dating back to last season – are on an overall 38-game winning streak.
The Silver Foxes are the top-ranked team in South Carolina and use tremendous defense, anchored by 6-foot-5 center Alaina Coates – a McDonald’s All-American who will play for the University of South Carolina next year – to smother opponents and keep them from getting shots off. And if the opposition is fortunate enough to avoid an empty possession and get through full-court pressure or half-court traps, Coates is waiting to make a block. She’s averaging a shade below four blocks per game to go with her other eye-popping averages of 20.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 assists.
“It’s not just her; they’re a well-balanced team,” Aiken head coach Aubrey Pompey said of Dutch Fork, which also has major contributors in Sydney Shull, Morgan Williams and Rose Robinson.
Shull averages approximately 10 points and 4 assists per game, Williams is close to 7 points and 6 rebounds and Robinson posts 5 points and a team-leading 4 assists per game. But what they’re best at is playing defense, forcing turnovers and turning them into easy transition baskets. Faye Norris’ team has nine players averaging more than a steal per game, most of which lead to high-percentage scoring opportunities while keeping the opposition under wraps. The playoff run has been no exception as they’ve allowed three opponents a combined 92 points.
It has been 398 days since anybody has bested Dutch Fork, a time span that includes a pair of wins over Aiken (19-7). But during the dominant run, no team has played the Silver Foxes tougher than the Hornets. Against all other opponents, Dutch Fork is winning by an average score of 59-32. That’s a slate that includes the best in the Palmetto State as well as three powers from Tennessee and two more from Florida. The games against Aiken have been much more competitive.
In their first meeting of the season, a Jan. 11 showdown at Dutch Fork, the home team prevailed 55-40. When the teams met again in Aiken on Jan. 29, the Silver Foxes roared out to an 18-point lead but had to pull out all of the stops to endure for a 51-46 victory. In the second meeting, a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half brought Aiken within two points with under a minute to play and as close as any team has come to shocking Dutch Fork this season.
It’s clear that the Hornets held Silver Foxes below their season average, while vastly exceeding what other opponents posted against the juggernaut. That’s a credit to Aiken, which is a veteran team that features four seniors in the starting lineup. The Hornets are also a defense-oriented squad that thrives by taking the ball away from opponents and finding easy baskets. Understanding that philosophy could have helped them deal with Dutch Fork.
Leading the charge for Aiken is Erin Gilmore, an All-State selection just like Coates – who is the Class AAAA Player of the Year. Although Gilmore’s been limited in the playoffs by an injured ankle, the senior guard has still scored 37 points in the wins over Blythewood, Summerville and West Ashley – the second-ranked team in the state behind only Dutch Fork. She’s at her best picking opponents’ pockets and cruising to the basket. But she has shown the ability to knock down some big jump shots, as have several of her teammates, providing a weapon that has helped the Hornets win their past two playoff games on the road, including an impressive 75-51 thrashing of Charleston powerhouse West Ashley. Jhay Graham, Rebekah Muir and Hanna Williams all have deft touch, and Aiken hit seven shots beyond the 3-point arc in the second game against Dutch Fork, helping nullify Coates’ 23-point effort.
But Aiken can also beat an opponent from inside the paint. Gilmore can slash to the basket or put the ball in the hands of center Monique Tyler or emerging star Alexis Odom. The junior forward propelled Aiken in the win over West Ashley, when she scored 12 of her game-best 26 points in the first quarter.
Having the same success with Coates clogging the lane will be a challenge, but if Aiken makes the improvement it showed from the first meeting with Dutch Fork to the rematch, an upset is possible.
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.
AT A Glance
What: Girls’ Class AAAA Lower State championship game
Who: Aiken (19-7) vs. Dutch Fork (27-0)
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Florence Civic Center
• follow I-20 E to David H. Mcleod Blvd (I-20 spur)
• Proceed to the first traffic light and turn right
• The Florence civic Center will be directly on the left on West Radio Drive
Staff photo by Noah Feit Aiken's Rebekah Muir (14) has been one of the key players this season for the Hornets, who will face Dutch Fork tonight in the Class AAAA Lower State championship game at the Florence Civic Center.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Aiken's Erin Gilmore (10) has been one of the key players this season for the Hornets, who will face Dutch Fork tonight in the Class AAAA Lower State championship game at the Florence Civic Center.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Aiken High girls' coach Aubrey Pompey, front, has led his team to tonight's Class AAAA Lower State championship game at the Florence Civic Center, where it will face Dutch Fork.×