COLUMBIA -- Near midcourt, close to where those in sweaty gold jerseys had just piled to celebrate, a pair of sullen players stood with their head coach and a runner-up trophy.
Chavone Simmons and Jay Abney, who attended the first practices for the Whale Branch Early College High School boys basketball team in 2010, were chosen to stand with coach Linc Lyles as the Class 1-A boys basketball champions were recognized. The two seniors closed their final high school game with another round of heartbreak Saturday at Colonial Life Arena, but Lyles wanted them to know there was more ahead.
He placed a hand on Simmons' shoulder and told him they were adults with plenty to look forward to.
"It's not over yet for the seniors," sophomore guard Justin Rhode said in a quiet locker room. "They've still got a life to live."
The Warriors might be forgiven for needing a little perspective after fighting their way to a second consecutive state championship game and falling short again. This time, C.A. Johnson erased an 18-point deficit with constant pressure to defeat Whale Branch 71-64 in overtime.
The championship was the first for the Columbia school since 1989. And 25 years later, coach Daryl Jarvis and the Hornets (18-9) were able to overcome the Warriors' depth with a 2-2-1 zone press that dared Whale Branch (23-5) to feed the middle of the floor and then squeezed on the ball-handler with suffocating efficiency.
The Hornets forced 36 turnovers, which Jarvis believed was a season-high.
Jarvis and the Hornets studied video of Whale Branch from the Lower State championship the previous week and decided Rhode would receive the majority of the pressure. C.A. Johnson forward Breondre Johnson worked to deny Rhode the ball and provide pressure in the backcourt.
Rhode and junior guard Marlon Williams led the Warriors with 16 points apiece. But Rhode worked for it.
"We know the offense runs through him," Johnson said. "If he doesn't get the ball, they don't have anything else to run the offense."
It wasn't all difficult for Whale Branch.
During the first half, the Warriors shot 69 percent and opened an 18-point lead -- 38-20 -- with 2:40 remaining in the second quarter. Whale Branch was attacking the zone press with quick passes and hitting its open looks.
But the Upper State champions answered with a 10-0 run before halftime, punctuated by a 3-pointer and consecutive Peter Goodman dunks.
Goodman, the Hornets' leading scorer, was taken out of his flow much of the rest of the game. He scored only four points after halftime and finished with 13.
C.A. Johnson shot only 38 percent and made 1 of 9 3-point attempts. The balanced Hornets received the lift from Michael Knox, a guard who made 13 of 16 free throws to help deliver victory in the second half.
C.A. Johnson took its first lead of the second half with 7:12 remaining and scored the first six points in overtime to ignite the heavy green-and-gold presence in Colonial Life Arena, the $64-million facility where the South Carolina Gamecocks play.
"Any team that makes it to the championship, we respect," Knox said. "We didn't expect them to hand us the game, because they had been here already. We just fought hard, fought through it and took it."
The Warriors settled for the Lower State championship for a second season after losing to Lewisville in the 2013 championship game. Their depth had received a boost this year with the addition of 6-foot-7 Jay Middleton and freshman Camrin Miller in the post.
Lyles said he expected a high-turnover game, with both teams hoping to press. But a full game's worth finally caught up with Whale Branch.
"We knew they were going to make a stand," Lyles said. "Anybody that's coached before, they understand how difficult it is to break pressure for four quarters."
Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.
Class 1-A boys basketball championship
at Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
C.A. Johnson 71, Whale Branch 64 (OT)
C.A. Johnson (18-9) -- Michael Knox 23, Ben Holmes 13, Peter Goodman 13, William Tobe 6, Breondre Johnson 6, Nathaniel Nelson 5, Dontrelle Corley 5
Whale Branch (23-5) -- Marlon Williams 16, Justin Rhode 16, Jay Middleton 10, Denzel Daniel 7, Jay Abney 6, David Lamb 5, Devonta Glover 2, Damian Brown 2