The Whale Branch Early College High School boys basketball team arrived in Florence on Friday, and coach Linc Lyles led his players into an empty Florence Civic Center.
The Warriors marveled at the cavernous building, which would hold all of the Lower State basketball championships over the next two days. Lyles told players to get the awe out of their system. The team watched the Class 4-A final that night to get a feel for a packed environment.
Players soaked in the crowd and sounds of the game. And Saturday there was only focus.
Whale Branch pulled away from Carvers Bay, winning 73-60 to claim the Class 1-A Lower State title. The Warriors play Lewisville on Saturday in Columbia for the state championship.
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"Our kids fought through all the distractions," said Lyles, whose team was without brothers Simeon and Michael Middleton for Saturday and will be for the state title game. "A coach always worries about distractions in a game like this."
In its third season, Whale Branch has accomplished all of its postseason firsts this season. The Warriors will try to win the school's first basketball state championship after the track team earned the school's first title in 2012.
Everyone who needed a big performance Saturday for Whale Branch delivered. All-state forward Dee Delaney finished with 22 points and 21 rebounds. Denzel Daniel dominated with his motor in the post, scrapping for 21 points and 19 rebounds. And freshman guard Justin Rhode again showed off his shooting touch, finishing with 15 points.
But the Warriors' second-half defense was the biggest assist. Carvers Bay guard Da'Shaun Aiken, the Class 1-A Player of the Year, scored 19 of his 27 points in the first half. After the Bears jumped out to a 47-40 lead early in the second half, ready to run away after a Shayton Durand dunk, they didn't score the final six minutes of the third quarter.
"We didn't get anymore 50-50 balls," Carvers Bay coach Jeff Mezzatesta said. "We missed a lot of easy shots."
Daniel, a junior, came in averaging seven points and seven rebounds per game. He attacked the Bears from the start, getting to the basket from the top of the key, putting in misses and getting to the free-throw line. Delaney showed off the versatility that earned him all-state status, collapsing tired in a chair outside the Warriors' locker room following the game.
Whale Branch wanted to prove it could win without the Middletons, who led the Warriors in scoring during a third-round victory over Timmonsville.
"We had a lot of heart in us," Rhode said. "We believed in each other and didn't give up."
The Warriors matched Carvers Bay's aggressive style and continued to attack the basket late in the fourth quarter. They added a zone press to slow the tiring Bears further and prevent a comeback.
Mezzatesta said he knew the Warriors were a deep team, just like he knew his Bears are more than Aiken, and that his friend Lyles would have his team ready. Lyles subbed for all five starters early in the game and pulled all five again half a minute later. He said he wanted to platoon more, but that later situations didn't allow much relief, draining the Warriors by the end.
"You can't slow the ball down on them, because they're going to pick you apart," Lyles said. "I told them they're going to scrap, they're going to press. We've got to do it better than them."
Class 1-A Lower State boys basketball final
Whale Branch 73, Carvers Bay 60
Whale Branch (24-3) -- Dee Delaney 22, Denzel Daniel 21, Justin Rhode 15, Terrell Hazell 8, Charles Jiles 3, Jay Abney 3, Malik Spicer 1.
Carvers Bay (20-8) -- Da'Shaun Aiken 27, Shayton Durand 14, Darius Williams 10, Shaquand Durand 6, Walter Linnen 2, Nigel Gamble 1.