With all due respect to High School League basketball, the place to be this week is the Sumter Civic Center for the SCISA Class 3A state tournaments.
Talk about star power. On display are the only two South Carolina players who helped USA Basketball Junior National teams win international tournaments last summer – Heathwood Hall senior A’ja Wilson and Hammond sophomore Seventh Woods. Wilson and Wood just happen to be the top ranked players in the state in their respective age/grade groups.
The other elite talent is Northwood Academy senior Amber Campbell, who has already sign to play at Wake Forest.
Wilson is averaging 34.5 points a game this season, with Campbell at 32.1 ppg. A dream match in Saturday’s girls championship game is in the offing. If the preseason confrontation is any indication, the finale could be a classic. Heathwood Hall nipped Northwood Academy, 80-77, on Jan. 31 in Columbia. Wilson and Campbell fired in 44 points apiece.
Four girls quarterfinal games are on tap Tuesday, beginning at 3:30 p.m. The boys quarterfinal round takes place on Wednesday. Semifinals and the championship games will be Friday and Saturday.
Heathwood Hall (19-4) and Wilson begin the now-or-never push for a state glory on Tuesday at 8 p.m. against Porter-Gaud. The Highlanders hit the wall in the semifinals in Wilson’s first three varsity seasons, and suffered a bitter championship game loss last season to Pinewood Prep.
“The girls don’t need to be reminded about what has happened in the past and what is at stake,” said coach John O’Cain after the regular season finale last week. “They know what they have to do to get it done.”
Wilson enters the final week of a brilliant career with 2,841 points, 1,624 rebounds, 292 assists, 395 steals and 496 blocks on her resume. Losing one game to injury and two to winter weather will keep her from reaching the 3000-point level.
“Getting 3000 points or any kind of individual record is not what A’ja is about,” said O’Cain. “She could care less. The only thing she wants is to help her team win a championship.”
Hammond (16-8) has a tough quarterfinal assignment at 5 p.m. against Northwood Academy (26-5) and Campbell.
Defending champion Cardinal Newman (17-9) opens the tournament on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. against a Heathwood Hall team (14-10) that finished strong - including wins over the Cardinals and Hammond in the penultimate week of the regular season.
The Cardinals were dealt a bad break with the recent injury loss of key senior John Ragin. CN dropped three of its last four games after Ragin was felled on Jan. 31 against Augusta Christian.
Seniors Charles Smith (18.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Joe Armstrong (9.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Zakki Parker (5.8 ppg, 3.7 apg) are the Cardinal leaders. Ryan Ellis (11.6 ppg), Nygel Vaughn (8.8 ppg) and Trenton Flemming (8.5 ppg) are the top Highlander producers.
Later, Ben Lippen (18-7) meets Northwood Academy at 6:30 p.m. and defending runner-up and heavily favored Hammond (21-5) faces Augusta Christian in last game of the day at 8 p.m.
Ben Lippen eliminated Pinewood Prep 68-51 in preliminary game on Saturday in Summerville. The once mighty Panthers will not make to trip to Sumter for the first time in memory.
Freshman Mark Shoemaker (10.0 ppg, 4.4 apg), Aaron McGuire (9.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Braden Cox (9.3 ppg) and Wright Bynum (8.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) headline the balanced Falcons.
Hammond is on a roll since going 0-4 at an out-of-state holiday tournament, winning 13 of 14 games in the 2014 portion of the season. The lone stumble was a 46-44 wake-up call at Heathwood Hall on Feb. 7.
The Skyhawks are pace by Woods, who is averaging 20.0 points, 3.8 assists and 4.0 steals. He has plenty of help from teammates Xavier McDaniel (12.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Chevez Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Spencer Carlson (8.5 ppg).