Gaffney star LJ Peak showed why he is considered one of the best high school basketball players to have played in South Carolina. The senior scored 49 points in the third round of the Class 4A state playoffs against Irmo.
But that wasn’t enough as the Yellow Jackets staked claim to being the most dominant boys program over the past four years. Javis Howard and Jevante Gross each scored 19 points to lead four players in double figures and lead Irmo to a 76-65 victory Tuesday night. The win is the 56th in the past 57 games for the Yellow Jackets and gives them a return date on Friday with Hillcrest in the Upper State championship at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.
“I’m amazed,” Irmo coach Tim Whipple said. “It’s not that I don’t believe in our guys. I feel we’re talented enough to be here, but I know you have to be more than good. You have to be lucky, too, and you don’t really have control over that. I think what I’ve found over these last four years is our teams have created their own luck. They’ve gone out and played with so much confidence and believe in themselves so much that they refuse to lose. You can’t teach that or replace that.”
The senior trio of Howard, Gross and Xavier Hill were fantastic in their final game on their home floor. Howard and Gross each recorded double-doubles. Howard, a 6-foot-8 center who is committed to Charleston Southern, dominated in the paint with 13 rebounds, and Gross did his part with 11 rebounds. Hill did most of his damage from the perimeter with 18 points and he added five rebounds.
Those three have a combined 10 years of varsity experience, and it showed in the big-game atmosphere.
“Those are the type of kids you would expect to come up big in a game like this,” Whipple said. “That experience is instrumental when you get in a close, tight game like tonight.”
Gross said having that experience of being in the pressure-cooker is paying dividends the deeper they make it in the playoffs. The last time they lost in the postseason was to Gaffney in 2012, so this was a payback moment, as well.
“We needed the seniors to come out with an attack mentality, and for everybody to contribute to the best of their ability and that’s what happened,” Gross said. “This win was a payback one from two years ago. It just feels good to win and still be playing.”
The defending state champs had to overcome the performance of Peak to advance. The Georgetown commit scored almost at will but wasn’t getting help from his teammates. He had seven points in the first quarter, 13 in the second, 14 in the third and 15 in the fourth, but it was not enough.
But that didn’t diminish his performance.
“I remember telling someone the only player that I’ve coached against in my 33 years that we couldn’t do anything with was Ray Allen,” Whipple said. “But Peak is that type of player. I would have thought if he scored that many points we would be in trouble. But what happened is our half-court defense and pressure kept the rest of the guys off-balance. They could never get into any rhythm and they had to look to him for everything. Because of that, he wasn’t able to do enough.”
Freshman Devontae Shuler contributed 14 points off the bench and his three 3-pointers during a 11-0 run in the first quarter gave Irmo (27-1) a lead it would not relinquish. The Yellow Jackets trailed 9-8 when he hit his first three, and by the time he made the third it was 17-8. The closest the Indians (20-6) would get the rest of the way would be six points at 69-63 but Irmo made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 1:09 to seal the deal.
Whipple said the effort of Shuler, and getting the lead early, was key.
“He got us going,” he said. “They had to play catchup the whole game because of that, and it was to our advantage. We didn’t have to change anything we were doing as the game went on, but they had to play catchup.”
Gaffney coach Mark Huff said trying to defend against so many scoring options was difficult.
“They’ve got good players at every position, and you have to account for them and know where they are. He came out and hit three 3s right off the bat. We had to pick our poison. Who are you going to key towards? If you key towards one, then somebody else is going to get you.”
“Compliments to Irmo. They need to be complimented.”