The Fort Dorchester bus was warm and rumbling as Leon Wheaton made his way out of the Beaufort High School gymnasium Tuesday.
The Patriots boys basketball coach might have been glad to leave the site of the Region 8-AAAA opener for both schools. Beaufort High had closed out a 47-44 victory to beat his team for a second time this season -- the first an overtime thriller in the final of the Modie Risher Basketball Invitational Classic during the holiday break.
Before becoming the last to climb the bus steps for the trip home, Wheaton reflected on the makeup of the Patriots' opponent and why coach Bruce Beasley's Beaufort High team has been able to scratch out the two victories.
"He's got some seasoned players now," Wheaton said.
Wheaton talked about when Beaufort High junior guards Adonis Grant and Jawan Mack were freshmen and more easily rattled during pressure situations. The Eagles are more mature, he said, whereas his Patriots lack experience in the backcourt.
To win region, teams will have to protect home floors as Beaufort High did Tuesday, he said. The Patriots will have their chance at home against Beaufort High on Jan. 31.
For now, through only one game of the league schedule, Beaufort High appears a team built to compete for a region title.
Unlike the first meeting, when Fort Dorchester led the whole way before the Eagles stormed back, Tuesday's game was back and forth. And again, it was low scoring.
Grant delivered the go-ahead basket with 2:24 remaining, forward Kendrick Colvin added a pair of free throws with less than 10 seconds left and the Patriots were held without a shot in two crucial situations.
First, with Fort Dorchester down 45-44 and inbounding the ball near midcourt, a lob under the basket after a backscreen skipped off a Patriot's hands and out of bounds. And needing a 3-pointer to tie after Colvin's free throws, Fort Dorchester instead had the ball poked away after crossing halfcourt.
"We're finishing games better than last year," Colvin said. "We've gotten better playing team ball."
Beaufort High adjusted after its first win over Fort Dorchester. Less trapping and more reliance on a mix of man-to-man and zone with help defense on Patriots senior Eric Hayward.
Hayward finished with 14 points. His potential go-ahead driving layup with fewer than 20 seconds remaining was blocked.
"Those are wars," Beasley said. "The teams are so evenly matched, we expect all of the games to go down to the wire."
Beaufort High boys 47, Fort Dorchester 44
Fort Dorchester (8-3, 0-1 Region 8-AAAA) -- Eric Hayward 14, William Munoz 9, Travon Hamilton 7, Kyjuan Reese 6, Dimitri Carter 5, James McFadden 2, Leon Fields 1
Beaufort High (12-1, 1-0) -- Kendrick Colvin 15, Adonis Grant 11, Jawan Mack 9, Carlton Johnson 6, Devin Stedman 3, Lamont Fripp 2, Marlon Gray 1
Fort Dorchester girls 58, Beaufort High 46
After his team exited its locker room, Beaufort High girls basketball coach Reggie Jones requested a brief chat with freshman guard Caroline O'Hara.
He wanted her to know he was proud of her play and poise, despite the Eagles' loss to open the Region 8-AAAA schedule. Beaufort High was down 17 early in the second half before battling back to trail by only four.
Jones' squad lost steam in the final minutes, but he was encouraged by the young Eagles' effort.
"I feel confident going into region play if they play like that," Jones said.
Mattie Hibbs led Beaufort High with 17 points.
After the Patriots started the third quarter on a 6-0 run to lead 36-19, Beaufort High stood firm with its press. Beaufort High trailed only 50-46 with 2:24 remaining. But the Patriots scored the final eight points.
O'Hara was on the court for much of the comeback and helped the Eagles move up the floor in transition. Jones said she handled herself like a senior.
"They were more disciplined in that press the second half," Jones said. "...I went in there and told them I was proud of them, because now they're fixing to take that next step."
Fort Dorchester (5-6, 1-0 Region 8-AAAA) -- Ericka Cobb 16, Jaliah Melvion 11, Victoria English 10, Jordan Spruill 8, Alexis Frost 8, J'Quanna King 5
Beaufort High (3-10, 0-1) -- Mattie Hibbs 17, Aaliyah Smalls 10, Kaitlyn Hamilton 9, Jasmine Wallace 4, Monique Jones 3, Bre Heyward 2, Caroline O'Hara 1