Jeff Mezzatesta heard from his players and fellow coaches what he already knew.
The Carvers Bay boys basketball coach took his team to Whale Branch Early College High School during the summer for a jamboree. Whale Branch and coach Linc Lyles returned the favor, traveling to compete in a Bears' event.
Each time, the Warriors drew rave reviews.
"Everybody up here was thoroughly impressed," Mezzatesta said. "I had more than one coach say 'That Whale Branch team is the best team at your jamboree.' I was like, 'I told y'all that.' "
Lyles came away with a similar impression of Mezzatesta's team. The friends will match squads again today at Florence Civic Center, with Whale Branch and Carvers Bay playing at 12:30 p.m. for the Class 1-A Lower State title.
The Warriors' primary task will be to slow Carvers Bay senior Da'Shaun Aiken, the Class 1-A Player of the Year. Aiken, a three-sport standout, averages 17.6 points per game.
He missed time early in the season with a groin injury but has been solid since.
"I don't know if you can stop him with one guy," Lyles said. "We've got tremendous athletes. He can hurt you from the outside. He can hurt you with drives. He's a complete player."
Mezzatesta had similar praise for Whale Branch's all-state selection, Dee Delaney, a multi-sport standout like Aiken. Delaney can play the wing or the post and bring the ball up the floor. He fights for loose balls and hits the offensive glass.
His versatility will be needed today, with the Warriors lacking their normal depth without Michael and Simeon Middleton, who will sit out the Saturday afternoon game for religious reasons. Lyles said it's time for key contributions from an unlikely source.
"Sometimes one to two minutes is not a lot of playing time, but in a close game, that can mean the difference in winning and losing," Lyles said. "That's what we sell our guys on, because it's the truth."
Whale Branch (22-3) defeated Cross, Timmonsville and C.E. Murray to reach the Lower State final. Carvers Bay (20-7) dropped Latta, Military Magnet and Johnsonville, rolling to a 20-point victory over the top-ranked Flashes.
The Bears have shown balance, Mezzatesta said, forcing teams to account for more than just Aiken.
"If that's all there was to us, then somebody would have exploited that by now," he said. "That's the thing that's really good about these kids. We're going to make our mistakes, but at the end of the day, they're a team."
Class 1-A Lower State boys basketball championship
Who: Whale Branch vs. Carvers Bay
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Florence Civic Center
Admission: $10 for an all-day pass, available at the Civic Center box office. Re-entry requires the purchase of another ticket.