Bulldogs face tall task in Lower State championship
The game against Lake Marion, the top-ranked Class AA team in South Carolina, will tip-off at 3:30 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center. When the regular season ended, it would be fair to say Silver Bluff (14-10) was a long shot to play in this game.
The Bulldogs barely finished with a winning record and were the third-place team in Region 5-AA. Throughout the season, Silver Bluff battled issues of consistency and injury and seemed like a team that might not realize its full potential.
That all changed when the playoffs started.
Silver Bluff, a team with strong perimeter players, wasn’t just taking any open shot.
The players were looking for the best scoring opportunity, playing smart basketball without rushing. And while patience paid off, making a high percentage of the shots was the biggest difference as the Bulldogs opened the postseason with wins at Battery Creek (73-63) and Calhoun County (64-57) before returning home to knock off Wade Hampton (61-50). “When the playoffs started, we were just hoping to find a way through Battery Creek,” Silver Bluff head coach Robbie McKenzie, said of changing expectations, although he said he enjoys playing the role of the underdog in today’s game. “It’s kind of nice, but the guys are ready for the challenge.”
The Bulldogs’ last two wins came against Region 5-AA rivals. While familiarity may breed contempt, it helped McKenzie and his staff to prepare on short notice to face teams they previously played twice, splitting the regular-season series in both occasions.
Against both Calhoun County and Wade Hampton, the Bulldogs were propelled by strong performances by top scorers Jaylen Lawrence and Donte Wright and a calm demeanor against late-game pressure to prevail. Wright, an All-State guard, led the Bulldogs with an average of more than 18 points per game in the regular season. In the playoffs, he’s scored 64 points in three games, an average of more than 21 points per game, which leaves him second on the team behind Lawrence. After posting approximately 15 points per game in the regular season, Lawrence, a small forward, is averaging 24 points in the three wins.
While they’re the top guns, they aren’t Silver Bluff’s only impact players. Brian Hickson is a capable point guard while big men Gyasi Yeldell and Nick Cummings are combining for more than 10 points and 10 rebounds per game this season.
The Bulldogs will need to continue playing at a high level if they hope to extend their season beyond today. That’s because Lake Marion (23-1) has been performing at a high level all season.
In his ninth season, head coach Roy Brown has guided the Gators to their second Lower State championship game appearance. This is the first year in Class AA for Lake Marion, which was created in 2004 following the consolidation of Holly Hill-Roberts and Elloree high schools. Brown has served as Gators’ head coach since the school’s inception and won three Class 3-A titles as an assistant and later head coach at Holly Hill-Roberts.
This season, his squad is led by All-State guard Khalil Halls, who has helped Lake Marion advance to this point. The Gators’ only loss this season was to Sumter, which played in the Class AAAA Lower State championship game. Since that Dec. 28 setback, they’ve won 16 games in a row. In the playoffs Lake Marion demolished Waccamaw 70-32 in the opening round, escaped Marion 52-50, before taking care of Dillon 92-75.
While Halls is the engine that makes the Gators go, they’re an exceptionally big team. Lake Marion features seven players on its roster listed as 6-foot-4 or taller, with centers Mike Williams (6-5) Austin Lawton (6-8) and Ryan Alston (6-6) patrolling the paint for the Region 7-AA champions.
Williams was a wide receiver for South Carolina in the 2012 Shrine Bowl and is headed to Clemson on a football scholarship.
“This is the longest team we’ve played all year and something we’ve worried about,” McKenzie said. “We don’t have a lot of experience competing on the glass with a team this ling, but we’re a matchup issue for them. We’re going to use our speed and we’ve got to use some pressure and tight defense, … We’re going to try to make this an up-tempo game.”
McKenzie said the Bulldogs will follow the formula they’ve used all year and throw a variety of looks on defense at the Gators. From a full-court press to an extended zone, McKenzie said it will be critical to keep Lake Marion guessing about where the defenders will be, which could cause frustration and turnovers.
“Our kids have played with every team in front of us this season,” McKenzie said of his group’s tenacity and growth. “This team has been learning how to win down the stretch. I hope we have a lead (today), because we know how to win.”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.