Dee Delaney stopped his teammates before they broke a huddle during a late timeout and told them they had to have heart.
The team with the most heart will win, the Whale Branch Early College High School senior said. To a group of high school basketball players, heart is a generic term that takes many forms.
With the game tied Tuesday and the crowd at Battery Creek High School tense for the conclusion of the Class 1-A Lower State semifinal game with C.E. Murray, Xs and Os might have gotten lost in the moment. Heart would have to do.
Whale Branch players nodded their understanding and shaped their own definition on the floor. Heart was the forced turnovers that followed, the one-handed slam from Simeon Middleton that sent the ball careening toward the Warriors' bench and drove coach Linc Lyles into a frenzy, arms waving for the crowd to roar louder in the borrowed gymnasium.
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And then Delaney, who also threw down a dunk to start the fourth quarter, turned steals into free-throw opportunities the final two minutes and sank all four despite legs worn down from playing the whole game.
The late rush propelled Whale Branch to a 67-60 victory. The Warriors will travel to Florence Civic Center on Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. game with Carver's Bay in the Class 1-A Lower State final. Carver's Bay defeated Johnsonville, 75-55, to earn its spot.
"When we were in the huddle, we were just comforting each other, telling us you've got to give it your all, put your heart into it," Middleton said. "That's what won the game."
Barring a change to the schedule, the win was the final game this season for Middleton and his brother, Michael, who have not played Friday nights or Saturday afternoons this season while adhering to their religious beliefs.
Michael led Whale Branch with 17 points, and Simeon finished with 16. Both came off the bench Tuesday as Lyles tried to prepare his team for their absence.
They provided a spark when they took the floor for the first time, both in the first quarter and a few minutes into the second half, after starting the third quarter on the bench.
C.E. Murray guard Darien McCray drew Whale Branch's focus before the game and showed it was deserved. He finished with a game-high 19, scoring in a variety of ways and feeding the War Eagles' post for easy baskets. The Warriors' five-guard look at times left them vulnerable underneath, but tilted the balance in transition late in the game.
"Turnovers and free throws -- exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point," C.E. Murray coach Neilson Hilton said. "And they are good at capitalizing on your turnovers."
Whale Branch continued to push its record accomplishments. The Warriors had not reached the third round before Tuesday, and therefore didn't know until Monday their game required a site suitable for at least 1,500 fans.
Battery Creek offered its gym, and Whale Branch fans filled the seats with gold and purple, which swayed after Simeon's dunk and Lyles' overjoyed outburst.
"I wanted to see how loud they could get," Lyles said. "The whole gym was rocking."
Class 1-A boys basketball playoffs
Whale Branch 67, C.E. Murray 60
C.E. Murray (17-5)--Darien McCray 19, Jamel Williams 11, Oceanezz Fluitt 11, Richard Harmon 10, Alexander Bradley 4, Martin Bufkin 3, Jamel Hugee 2.
Whale Branch (23-3)-- Michael Middleton 17, Simeon Middleton 16, Charles Jiles 10, Dee Delaney 8, Justin Rhode 7, Denzel Daniel 6, Terrell Hazell 3.