FLORENCE -- David Lamb and Jay Middleton always had the words in mind.
Whale Branch Early College High School boys basketball coach Linc Lyles told them they were capable of playing at a high level all the time. Before Saturday, Lamb had not had the stage, and Middleton was still adjusting to a new team and late start to the season.
The Class 1-A Lower State championship provided the setting for both to break out. With Whale Branch needing a boost with the absence of brothers Simeon and Michael Middleton, Lamb scored a personal-best 22 points to help the Warriors defeat Hemingway 69-62.
Whale Branch won Lower State for a second consecutive year. The Warriors will travel to Columbia to play Upper State champion C.A. Johnson for the Class 1-A title on Saturday, March 8.
"It just hit me that I needed to step up tonight," said the junior Lamb, who played a limited role as a sophomore. "And I did."
Jay Middleton posted 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Warriors snatched 36 offensive rebounds to out-hustle the Tigers.
Middleton, a transfer from Wade Hampton who did not play for the Red Devils as a sophomore after a heart procedure, led a front line that included senior Denzel Daniel's 10 rebounds.
Middleton, cousin of the Middletons absent due to their observance of the Sabbath, said this week that Whale Branch's system is bigger than its individual pieces. He reiterated it Saturday.
"When guys are down and not playing well, you've got guys who will come up," Middleton said. "That's Lyles' system, and that's a perfect example."
Hemingway (18-8) had won nine consecutive games to reach the Lower State final, a resurgent year after reaching six state championship games from 2003-2010.
The Tigers were driven by their full-court press. Lyles received several reports from coaches who had fallen to the Tigers, all with the same theme: they couldn't consistently advance the ball past midcourt.
And so Lyles doctored up what he thought was an overly difficult scout-team press to drill the Warriors. He guessed the team spent 80 percent of its practice time since the third round devoted to breaking the pressure.
"I think it scared some of the new guys," said Lyles, whose team improved to 23-4. "But they're telling me now it was tougher than the game press."
Like the previous year, when Whale Branch required a huge game from senior Dee Delaney to advance out of the Lower State final, the Warriors needed a boost without two of their most versatile players.
Lamb, a 5-foot-11 guard athletic enough to dunk with ease, had led the Warriors in scoring a couple of games this season but averaged only 4.1 points per game. And at times, Lyles had been reluctant to use him extensively in close games.
The performance Saturday might have solidified a transformation.
Lamb's consecutive baskets to end the third quarter, including a three-point play, gave Whale Branch a 48-45 lead.
"I just watched and learned from players last year," Lamb said. "I knew my time was going to come, and it did."
The Warriors used a 7-0 run early in the third quarter to open a 40-32 lead. After the Tigers fought back to tie the game at 49 early in the fourth quarter, Whale Branch created the final separation with an 8-0 run.
Middleton scored 10 of his 15 points during the fourth quarter, grabbing rebounds and going to the foul line.
"They were just so long and athletic and lanky," Lyles said. "But they didn't have a Jay Middleton. And we do."
Class 1-A Lower State boys basketball championship
Whale Branch 69, Hemingway 62
Whale Branch (23-4) -- David Lamb 22, Justin Rhode 15, Jay Middleton 16, Devonta Glover 6, Denzel Daniel 5, Marlon Williams 3, Jay Abney 2
Hemingway (18-8) -- Phillip Williams 11, Clarence Jones 10, Dontre Mack 9, Demetris Hampton 8, Joshua McKelvey 7, Zachary Thomas 6, Jermaine Frierson 4, Marquis Hampton 3, D'Netric Pressley 2, DeMontre Platt 2