Trailing visiting Calhoun County by two points to start the fourth quarter and with its hopes of reaching the Class 2-A Lower State finals hanging in the balance, the Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School boys basketball team turned to its two constants Wednesday -- senior leadership and staunch defense.
Senior guard Terrance Frazier scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, and the defense ignited a 14-2 run to open the period as the Jaguars punched their ticket to a state semifinal appearance with a thrilling 59-52 victory over the Saints.
The win not only avenges a first-round playoff loss to Calhoun in the first round of last year's playoffs, but it sets up a battle with 2-A power Lake Marion at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Florence with a trip to a state championship on the line.
"I told the kids before the game to just give us a chance to win late and we would pull it out," Jaguars head coach Jeremiah Faber said during a raucous celebration on the court following the game. "We've come from behind all season and it's a great credit to the kids that we were able to do it against such a good team tonight. I am just so proud of them."
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While this is uncharted territory for these Jaguars players, it certainly didn't show in the decisive fourth quarter, which began with the Saints clinging to a 35-33 lead in what can only be described as a defensive brawl.
Yet it was the home team that came out punching in the final eight minutes, scoring 26 points behind the play of Frazier and fellow-senior Charles Mitchell, who combined to score 17 of the team's 26 fourth-quarter points.
That outburst included a stretch of eight straight points from Frazier, as the senior guard took control of the game early in the final quarter by attacking Calhoun's vaunted full-court press, getting to the basket for challenged layups that often ended in either two points or a trip to the free-throw line.
In fact, it was Frazier who helped turn aside a final charge by the Saints, who converted on a three-point play to trim the Jaguars' lead to just three points with only 1:11 left in the game. Rather than playing keep away, the lightning-fast senior responded to the play by taking the ball at midcourt and charging to the basket for a layup that pushed the Ridgeland-Hardeeville lead to 57-52 with 55 seconds left.
The play sent the vocal home crowd into a frenzy and ultimately punched his team's ticket to the state semifinals as Calhoun failed to score during the final minute of the contest.
"The fourth quarter is my quarter," a confident Frazier said as his teammates cut down the nets behind him. "That's the way it has been all season, and that is the way I wanted it tonight."
It wasn't, however, all about Frazier and Mitchell, who finished the game as Ridgeland-Hardeeville's second-leading scorer with 14 points. The Jaguars, who witnessed Calhoun's oppressive full-court press up close and personal last season and heard all about it again in the days leading up to this third-round tussle, displayed a stingy half-court defense of their own all game long, making the Saints work for just about everything they got on the offensive end.
Likewise, after starting the game with seven first-quarter turnovers, the Jaguars found their offensive footing in the second quarter and beyond, limited giveaways and continually attacking the Calhoun defense by throwing over the top and attacking the lane once in the front court.
"Because we played them last year the kids knew what to expect and they really handled the press well this time around," Faber said. "We limited the turnovers throughout the game and stayed aggressive on offense. That was the key to the game."
In addition to Frazier and Mitchell, the Jaguars got a taste of its future as sophomore guard Kevon Williams added 10 points of his own, including six in that all-important fourth quarter. Calhoun County was led by Anquan Mack, who scored 17 points in the losing effort, including 11 in the first half.
Now the Jaguars turn their sights to Lake Marion, who dominated Mullins 92-59 in its third-round game. It will be a significant test for the upstart Jaguars, but Faber was more than happy to take a moment to process what his team accomplished on its home floor Wednesday before tackling that next challenge.
"I've been at this for 30 years, and I've never been prouder of a bunch of kids than I am right now," Faber said. "The kids earned this tonight. They have been through a lot and they deserve this victory."