A.C. Flora has a simple motto on the back of the T-shirts they wear for warm-ups.
“See It Through.”
The Falcons overcame their share of adversity throughout the season and pulled out a 51-42 overtime victory against Darlington in the Class 3A state championship game Saturday night at Colonial Life Arena. The win gave Flora its first boys basketball state championship since 1986 and the fourth in the program’s history.
“This is what I dreamed about right here,” A.C. Flora coach Leon Brunson said. “Look at that bunch with the smiles on their faces and hugging each other. It’s all about the kids. I was placed her by God to re-energize the program. I’m glad I was able to do that. This is a great feeling, just great to bring this program back to where it used to be.”
The ride to the title was not an easy one. The Falcons finished second in the region and had one home playoff game. But they played their best basketball at the end of the season and closed on a seven-game winning streak.
“This is a big feat for the school and community,” Brunson said. “I’m just elated to be a part of it.”
A.C. Flora (20-9) owned the overtime period. The front line of Karl Gamble and James Murray-Boyles began to wear down the smaller Darlington front court. Flora dominated the rebounding battle in the second half and overtime, outscoring Darlington 35-22 and holding a 13-2 advantage on second-chance points.
“We knew once we got the game to our speed and used our size, we could exploit them,” Brunson said. “Defensively, we picked up our intensity which led to our victory.”
Diquan Day-Grant gave A.C. Flora the lead for good, 39-38, on a layup with 2:42 remaining in the extra period. He was fouled and missed the free throw, but A.C. Flora got possession when Darlington knocked the ball out of bounds. Murray-Boyles scored as part of an 8-0 run to give A.C. Flora a 45-38 lead with 1:08 remaining.
“We told ourselves we couldn’t play at their tempo,” Murray-Boyles said. “Coach kept stressing that, and we were finally able to use our size and control the paint in the second half.”
Darlington coach Ken Howle thought the interior play for A.C. Flora was the difference.
“Size was definitely a problem,” Howle said. “ (Also) second and third shots on the defensive end and our inability to get shots on the offensive end.”
The championship game started out rocky. A.C. Flora fell behind 14-4 at the end of the first quarter and was playing at Darlington’s pace, which was fast behind guard Chris Hooks and Frankie Johnson. A.C. Flora was 2-of-10 from the field in the first quarter and had six turnovers.
But the tempo started to slow, and A.C. Flora made 4-of-5 shots in the second quarter to trail 20-16 at the half. Murray-Boyles had seven of his game-high 16 points in the second quarter to help close the gap. Karl Gamble added 11 points and 14 rebounds with Rion Davis adding 11 and Day-Grant 10 – most coming in the paint.
“I think our size played part,” Murray-Boyles said. “We kept getting into the paint, and I think that wore them down.”
A.C. Flora was able to keep the pace slow and took it’s first lead, 30-28, on the final shot of the third quarter when Tyler Gray banked in a 3-pointer from mid-court at the buzzer.
The teams traded the lead five times with three ties for the rest of regulation. Neither team got a good final look as time ran out. A.C. Flora turned it over with 3.3 seconds remaining, and Darlington missed badly from 25-feet as time expired to force overtime, tied at 35.
“In the beginning, our nerves got us,” Brunson said. “Once we settled down and got into the groove of the game we let our will take over. Ours overcame theirs tonight.”
That will ended a 28-year title drought for A.C. Flora.
“It feels great,” Murray-Boyles said. “All the offseason work we do to finally see it pay off like this is indescribable. We saw it through. That is our team motto, and that is what we did.”