FLORENCE — Silver Bluff’s boys’ basketball team overcame deficit after deficit on Saturday in the Class AA Lower State title game, but in the end, Lake Marion pulled out the 68-61 victory.

Down by double digits twice in the second half, the Bulldogs (14-11) came within two points of the Gators (24-1) each time. Head coach Robbie McKenzie said his team showed its ability to “battle” even in the loss.

“That group fights their tail off, beginning to end” he said. “It’s been every game this year. We are not going to outsize you; we’re not going to outspeed you. We just have 14 kids … that just want it.”

In the game’s early minutes, Silver Bluff traded the lead with Lake Marion, but by the closing moments of the first quarter, the Gators had stretched to a 15-9 lead. Donte Wright hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 15-12 before the quarter was over, but that was the only shot the Bulldogs hit from beyond the arc out of 15 first-half attempts.

McKenzie said he attributed the cold start to the stage his team was playing on. The game was held at the Florence Civic Center in front of a large – and mostly Gator-friendly – crowd.

“I think that’s what it was – a little bit of big-game jitters,” he said. “We just had to kind of shake that off.”

The Bulldogs did in the second half, but not before putting themselves in a worse situation. The Gators closed the first half on a 7-0 run to take a 33-24 lead into halftime and then scored the first four points of the third quarter to hold a 13-point lead.

That’s when Silver Bluff found its 3-point shooting prowess. Sparked by four third-quarter 3-pointers and 14 total points by Jalen Jackson in the frame, the Bulldogs narrowed the margin to 48-46 late in the quarter. Khalil Halls hit a basket for the Gators before the third quarter ended to push their lead to 50-46.

Wright and Jaylen Lawrence had been so productive in Silver Bluff’s earlier playoff games, that they were the focus of Lake Marion’s defense. That meant someone else needed to find a way to score.

“If a team scouts you, they’re going to key on those two guys,” McKenzie said. “We said we have to have someone else step up, and Jalen Jackson did that. I mean, he took some of that pressure away from them, and he was that extra guy that stepped up.”

In the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, the Gators tried to put the game away again with a 7-1 run that had them again leading 57-47. During that same stretch, Bulldog post player Nick Cummings fouled out with more than 7 minutes left in the game.

Silver Bluff was already at a size disadvantage against Lake Marion and its seven players taller than 6-foot-4. The loss of Cummings – a rare source of length for the Bulldogs – made that even worse. Still, McKenzie was proud of the effort of players like Gyasi Yeldell, who finished with 13 points, showed against a much taller Gator team.

“Big guys played tremendous. All week, when we knew we were going to play them, we said we had to rebound,” McKenzie said. “Honestly I feel like we won the rebound game. Maybe stats don’t totally show that, but my little guys competed on the glass from the beginning to the end. Gyasi, and Jalen Douse came off the bench, those guys competed.”

Down by double digits again, the Bulldogs fought back again. With 3-pointers by Jackson and Lawrence, they made it a one-possession game. But the Gators had an answer each time.

The final dagger came with 1:03 left when Wright, who scored 14 points for the Bulldogs to support Jackson’s game-best effort of 17 points, also fouled out.

Silver Bluff kept fighting but was unable to get any closer than three points in the final two minutes.

McKenzie said the foul disparity, which resulted in 44 free-throw attempts for Lake Marion as opposed to only 12 for Silver Bluff, was due in part to the way his smaller players hung tough against the larger Gators.

“They played so hard, and I don’t think the officials knew how to (call it). They said, ‘That’s gotta be a foul. There’s no way that little guy can compete with that big guy,’” he said. “They gave them a few … it was just hard play, and I think that whistle shouldn’t have blown a few times.”

The Bulldogs got 13 points from Lawrence to round out a quartet of double-digit scorers. The Gators were led by Michael Williams with 14 points, while Halls added 13 and Austin Lawton contributed 12. Torrance Wright and Christopher Turner added nine each.

Even though they weren’t able to pull out the win, the way the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with Halls, an All-State selection, as well as Williams and Lawton, both 6-foot-5 or taller, showed the type of athlete Silver Bluff puts into competition, McKenzie said.

“That’s Silver Bluff,” he said. “You look at how outsized many times our football program is, and they find ways. Because the kids have it, it’s the tradition of the school of that winning tradition, and we ain’t gonna quit. Until that horn goes, we’re not going to stop, and they did that.”

SB 12 12 22 15 – 61

LM 15 18 17 18 – 68

Silver Bluff (14-11)—Jalen Jackson 6 0-0 17, Jaylen Lawrence 5 2-4 13, Brian Hickson 1 0-0 2, Gyasi Yeldell 6 1-2 13, Jalen Douse 1 0-2 2, Donte Wright 5 3-4 14. Totals: 24 6-12 61.

3-pointers: Jackson (5), Lawrence, Wright.

Lake Marion (24-1)— Khalil Halls 4 5-8 13, Torrance Wright 3 3-6 9, Ryan Alston 0 0-2 0, Zaquan Brunson 1 0-0 3, Deriante Jenkins 0 3-6 3, Dominique Bryant 1 0-0 3, Christopher Turner 3 3-8 9, Austin Lawton 5 2-2 12, Kezimen Myers 1 0-0 2, Michael Williams 3 8-12 14. Totals: 21 24-44 68

3-pointers: Brunson, Bryant.

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.