After a one-year absence, the Lower Richland girls basketball team is back in familiar territory.
The Diamonds used a tenacious 2-3 zone to harass Marlboro County into a poor shooting effort in Monday night’s 52-30 victory at home in the third round of the Class 3A playoffs. Lower Richland moves into the state semifinals for the sixth time in the past seven years.
Lower Richland won four consecutive state titles from 2006-09 and were knocked out in the Lower State championship in 2010. Last year, a second round loss was their earliest exit from the postseason since a first round loss in 2005.
But with a young squad, Debbie Stroman has the Diamonds back in title contention. They have won seven in a row with three of their four losses coming against Dreher, the team they will face in the Lower State championship Saturday night at the Florence Civic Center.
“We have improved greatly in every game we’ve played this season,” Stroman said. “We’re ready for where we’re going to be on Saturday. We’ll tweak some things, but we aren’t adding anything new. I think they’re ready and wish they could play sooner.”
The 2-3 zone defense and the inside play of sophomore Breshay Johnson proved to be the difference against the Bulldogs (20-5).
Lower Richland (20-4) held Marlboro County scoreless in the first quarter and forced them to miss their first 16 shots from the field in building a 13-2 lead 10 minutes into the game. Rasheda Patterson scored the Bulldogs first basket with 3:36 remaining in the first quarter on a 3-pointer from the wing. She hit another 3 on the next possession, and the Bulldogs made 3-of-6 shots in the final three minutes to pull within 17-13 at the half.
The Diamonds connected on 3-of-18 shots from the field in the second quarter after making 5-of-13 in the first quarter.
“We relaxed a little bit towards the end of the half, but the girls never lost their composure,” Stroman said. “They still had that presence about them. We made the adjustments and told them what we needed to do. We took the press off and dropped back into that 2-3. We were giving them some shots but they weren’t able to knock them down.”
Marlboro County made 3-of-22 in the first half and could not get the ball to Nikkei Blackburn in the post with any consistency. They finished the game 10-of-52 shooting with 18 turnovers.
“We’ve practiced against the 2-3 zone all week long, and what we practiced, we didn’t execute,” Marlboro County coach Nequita Collins said. “Without execution, it put us in a position where we can’t find the basket. It was like there was a piece of cellophane on the basket and nothing dropped.”
Stroman wanted to limit Blackburn’s touches and felt the 2-3 was the best way to do that.
“We were going to sit back in that zone just to see if somebody else was capable of doing something,” Stroman said. “We weren’t going to let her beat us. We were going to make somebody else do it.”
The opening of the third quarter proved to be the difference.
Johnson scored six of her game-high 22 points during an 11-0 run to push the lead to 28-13 early in the third quarter. The lead never dropped below 10 the rest of the way and another 14-4 run in the fourth quarter salted the game away.
“When the other team has a big presence inside like they did, you aren’t sure if she is going for the block or if she is going to stay grounded,” Stroman said. “She was really disciplined and stayed grounded, and I pulled Breshay aside and told her to be aggressive and she did that and was able to capitalize on that.”
MC: Rasheda Patterson 10, Nikkei Blackburn 10, Moore 7, Shaw 3. LR: Breshay Johnson 22, Jasmine Richardson 12, Nathan 4, Brown 4, Davis 4, Dennis 3, Irving 2, Williford 1.