FLORENCE — Lexington’s bid for a return to the state final came down to the free-throw line.
The Wildcats picked up 12 of their 14 fourth quarter points from the charity stripe to protect their lead and defeat Aiken 44-36 on Friday at the Florence Civic Center — advancing to the March 2 Class 4A state championship game against Gaffney.
“The free throws late were big, and we’ve been a pretty good free throw shooting team,” coach Bailey Harris said.
Added Aiken coach Tony Harrell: “It’s frustrating for a player when you’re out there and the other team keeps going to the line and you can’t defend a free throw. Credit to them for making their free throws, that’s what made the difference.”
Filling in at point guard for an injured Joby Glymph, senior Jack Edelson touched off a third-quarter rally with a 3-pointer to put Lexington up 18-11.
Shaq Roland, who had been quiet early on, posted nine points to extend the Lexington lead. But Aiken’s Shawn Moore pumped in six points to help the Green Hornets keep pace.
But late in the third quarter, the Green Hornets were forced to sit Moore and top rebounder Dramel Coleman, both of whom had four fouls. But Aiken kept it close and trailed by six.
Both returned to the game with four minutes to play with Aiken trailing by five, and Coleman responded with a driving layup that cut the Wildcats’ lead to three with 3:51 to go.
But the Green Hornets would not get any closer.
“These guys had a remarkable season, they showed tremendous character and effort, they just came up a little short tonight,” Harrell said.
Neither team got its best shot early on.
The game was scoreless after three minutes until Glymph put the Wildcats on the board with two free throws. After one quarter, Lexington led 7-5.
By halftime, the two squads were a combined 7-of-38 from the field, and the Wildcats held a narrow 15-11 lead — with nine of their points coming on free throws. Senior Jalen Cook led Lexington with four points at the half.
Roland, who faced double teams most of the game, served his team by freeing up his teammates. He made two field goal attempts in the first half.
“They are such a strong offensive team, and we knew we had to slow them down,” Harrell said. “Shaq Roland is a big part of that, and we wanted to make sure we could get the ball out of his hands as much as possible. And we did a good job of that at the beginning.”
After suffering two regular-season losses to Lexington, the Green Hornets hoped to make the Wildcats feel the sting of revenge, but Lexington had its own motives as they entered their third consecutive state semifinal. The Wildcats, state runners-up in the 2009-10 season, missed last year’s final after falling to Ridge View in the Lower State final.
Now, Lexington is headed for a rematch with Gaffney at Colonial Life Arena.
“We did what we had to do to win tonight, but obviously it’s going to take more than that to win a title,” Harris said.
L: Shaq Roland 15, Quiat 2, Gates 7, Cook 6, Edelson 5, Glymph 3, McDermott 6. A: Moore 6, Glover 5, McKie 4, Butler 6, Cheatham 5, Dramel Coleman 10.
Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419