Brandon Rivers was never the star. Never a kid talented enough to rearrange a defense.
His story isn't a first, but it's remarkable nonetheless -- he was nearly cut from the basketball team his freshman season.
But he fought. He clawed.
He stayed after practice to shoot. He left one gym to go to another.
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And three years later, Rivers was the track on which the Bluffton High School train rode. The pulse of a team that suddenly had a life for the first time in four years.
The wheels, however, stopped turning Tuesday night.
Rivers' career -- and the Bobcats' season -- came to an end with a 60-50 loss to Marlboro County in the first round of the Class 3-A playoffs.
"It's hard, man," a tearful Rivers said. "You start to think back about everything you've gone through and how far we've come. It's just hard."
The Bobcats were in the postseason for the first time in three seasons. They took Region 7-AAA's second seed into Tuesday's game -- the best finish in school history.
Rivers was deservedly credited.
As a freshman, he was lost on the floor -- couldn't even keep track of what defense his own team ran, coaches said.
But Rivers didn't quit basketball. He refused to lose his competitiveness.
And despite losing season after losing season, the Bobcats followed the way of their lone senior in 2011.
Five wins a year ago turned into 12 this season. They followed a one-win region campaign -- and a sixth-place finish -- with a 6-4 league record and a home playoff game to go with it.
But while the school's football team took several leaps forward, the boys basketball team was left with the realization Tuesday that its route will be smaller steps of progress.
"When you build something, it's a process," Bobcats coach Brett Macy said. "The process was ugly last year, but it got us to this year. ... Now we can move forward because of this year."
They hoped their stride would be longer this year, but Malik Ford prevented it.
Marlboro County opened the game on a 14-2 run and outscored the Bobcats 19-9 in the opening quarter, which Ford capped with a 30-foot 3-pointer from the right hashmark. The Bulldogs' guard finished with 16 points in the first half and 17 for the game. He made all four of his 3-point attempts.
"I was feeling really good, and my boys kept hitting me when I was open," Ford said. "We were fired up and ready to go."
Ford's hot hand shell-shocked the Bobcats, who forced just one turnover in the first quarter and missed five of six 3-point attempts.
If Bluffton showed inexperience, it was because they had it. No player on the roster had played significant minutes in a postseason game, and most hadn't played any.
Still, they fought back from a 15-point halftime deficit. Anthony Smith drained three 3-pointers as part of his 10-point third quarter to pull the Bobcats within three. He and Michael Grant scored 12 apiece.
Marlboro County (11-10) limited Smith to one bucket in the fourth quarter, though, and the rest of the team combined to make only 2 of 14 3-pointers in the game.
"You could see us grit our teeth and say, 'Now we're going to play,' " Macy said. "We just needed to do that from the tipoff and know that playoff basketball is different (from the regular season)."
A lesson the Bobcats learned the hard way Tuesday night.
Brandon Rivers gave them another lesson -- one that was four years in the making. The Bobcats' coaching staff took turns thanking him for it in Tuesday's post-game speech. Players did the same.
Rivers spoke afterward in an appreciative yet saddened tone.
"It's amazing to see what we did this year," Rivers said. "Being the only senior, I tried to get the guys to realize the importance of everything and that you don't get many shots at this.
"I hope they carry that on."
MARLBORO COUNTY (11-10) -- Malik Ford 17, Tabian Underwood 10, Lorenzo Baldwin 10, Zack Odom 6, Rasheem Bostic 6, Nate Williams 4, Desean Hicks 3, London Johnson 2, Thomas Ocean 2.
BLUFFTON (12-11) -- Anthony Smith 12, Michael Grant 12, C.J. Frazier 10, Brandon Rivers 8, Bryson Bell 6, Harlan Kendrick 2