FLORENCE ­— Coming into the girls’ Class AAAA Lower State championship game, Aiken High coach Aubrey Pompey knew his team would have to keep Dutch Fork’s All-State center Alaina Coates from dominating the game.

That’s easier said than done. The Hornets actually defended the 6-foot-5 Coates reasonably well, but that didn’t stop the Class AAAA Player of the Year from being the difference maker in the Silver Foxes’ 40-24 victory Friday night.

In the game played at the Florence Civic Center, Coates finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks – all game highs. As tough as Coates was with the ball in her hands, nearly outscoring Aiken (19-8) all by herself, her biggest impact came on defense.

The Hornets never found a rhythm on offense, due in large part to Coates. Her presence in the paint discouraged Aiken’s guards from driving the lane, one of the strengths of their offense. In addition to the six blocks she recorded, she altered many more shots that were rushed or off target because the long arm of the future University of South Carolina player was looming.

“It was weird, our offense didn’t have the confidence it had in the last few games,” Aiken head coach Aubrey Pompey said of his team which got to the Lower State title game with impressive wins over Blythewood, Summerville and West Ashley. “I attribute that to Alaina. … The big girl did tremendous.”

Coates made her presence felt from the opening tip, which she won. After Aiken took an early 3-2 lead, Coates blocked a pair of shots that seemed to take the Hornets out of any comfort zone.

They rushed to try to initiate their offense before Coates got in position patrolling the paint, but faced with on-the-ball pressure from Dutch Fork’s perimeter players, the Hornets committed some sloppy turnovers. That helped fuel a 9-0 run by the Silver Foxes (28-0), giving them a lead they’d never relinquish because the great defensive effort.

“Dutch Fork’s defense really clamped down on us. They did a terrific job,” Pompey said after his team was limited to 10 points in the second half in spite of great tenacity from his players. “Dutch Fork was aggressive on the ball and filled the passing lanes. We never got in our rotations.”

The Silver Foxes defense was so impressive, it over shadowed a great performance by the Hornets on defense. Aiken held Dutch Fork well below its season average of 59 points per game, but it wasn’t enough to avoid losing to its Region 5-AAAA rival for the third time this season. On Jan. 11, Dutch Fork prevailed 55-40 before barely escaping Aiken with a 51-46 win on Jan. 29.

The Hornets played great team defense and center Monique Tyler did a commendable job against Coates, who’s close to impossible to stop when she gets the ball in the low post. If wasn’t for Coates ability to battle through physical play and double teams, the outcome could have been different with the rest of her teammates limited to a combined 20 points.

“They had tow or three on her every time,” Dutch Fork head coach Faye Norris said of Aiken’s effort against Coates. “They played good defense, but that 6-5 presence is hard to defend.”

If it wasn’t for Aiken’s strong defensive showing, and some timely outside shooting by Jhay Graham, the game could’ve deteriorated into a blowout. But Graham scored nine of her team-high 11 points in the second quarter, when she supplied all of the Hornets scoring by making three 3-pointers. Graham’s contributions kept Dutch Fork from running away, leading only 23-14 at halftime.

Aiken actually started the third quarter playing its best basketball of the game. It came out of the locker room with tremendous energy that resulted in aggressive defense, forced turnovers, attacking the glass and four quick points. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the scoring dried up after that, and the points scored in the opening two minutes of the quarter would be the only ones Aiken accounted for in the third. After toiling so diligently, the Hornets ran out of gas in the fourth as the Silver Foxes gradually pulled away and killed the clock.

“They battled and I’m very proud of them. They did a great job,” Pompey said of his team which vastly improved over last season’s 8-17 mark. “Not many teams play (Dutch Fork) this tough.”

As hard as it is to imagine, Norris said the win was bittersweet. Norris is a proud Aiken High alum and was one of the top players on the girls’ basketball team that won the 1975 state championship, the only state title in program history.

“It’s my alma mater, so it messed with me a little,” Norris said of the win that puts her team in next Friday’s state championship game against Dorman, to be played at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. Should the Silver Foxes win that game it would complete a perfect season and clinch back-to-back state titles. “We want that second one and we want to finish with a perfect record.”

If Dutch Fork does, it will be largely because of the tremendous play of Coates. Norris is well aware of how special her senior center is.

“It’s a treat to have her,” she said of Coates. “She’s built for basketball. She’s got agility, coordination and is strong. She’s a great basketball player.”

While none of his seniors are quite the same caliber player as Coates, Pompey was just as effusive in his praise for the four seniors he’s losing to graduation. Four starters played their last game for the Hornets Friday, including All-State guard Erin Gilmore, who battled valiantly with an injured ankle, as well as Tyler and guards Hanna Williams and Rebekah Muir. They combined to score 13 points in the loss.

“Erin, she speaks for herself. Monique, you could see her grow, Hanna’s solid and leaves it all out on the floor and Rebekah’s a spark plug,” Pompey said. “They all bring something I can’t coach and the will to work hard and win. It’s a great group and I will miss them. They put us on a whole other level.

“They played their hearts out. I told them to remember the journey. The final destination is not what where we wanted to be, but the journey was great.”

AIK 5 9 4 6 – 24

DF 13 10 8 9 – 40

Aiken (19-8)­—Erin Gilmore 1 0-0 2, Rebekah Muir 2 0-0 5, Jhay Graham 4 0-0 11, Monique Tyler 3 0-0 6, Alexis Odom 0 0-2 0. Totals: 10 0-2 24.

3-Pointers: Graham (3), Muir.

Dutch Fork (28-0)—Zhane Green 1 3-4 5, Ky’Aire Daniels 1 2-2 4, Rose Robinson 1 0-1 2, Sydney Shull 2 0-1 4, Alexis Fraiser 1 3-4 5, Alaina Coates 8 4-5 20. Totals: 14 12-17 40.

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.