Dreher and Lower Richland girls basketball have combined to win the past three Class 3A state championships. The Blue Devils are the defending state champs and won the title in 2012 as well. The Diamonds won in 2013.
Any time these two get together in the regular season, the bar is set high.
Even though Tuesday night’s action was sloppy at times, the drama and intensity didn’t disappoint in the Region 4-3A opener with Dreher hanging on for a 37-34 victory in front of a spirited home crowd.
“I think both teams were a little anxious and nervous with it being the first region game,” Dreher coach Teresa Jones said. “We both wanted to win so badly, that played into the anxiety we both had.”
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Lower Richland won the two regular season meetings last year before Dreher knocked them off in the state semifinals en route to the state title. So even though the Diamonds opened region play with a loss, they still have something to look forward too.
“One of our assistants in the locker room told the team that she played on a team that started 0-7 before winning the state championship,” Lower Richland coach Debbie Stroman said. “So, we have to correct and work on things that I think are problems right now. The good thing is we still have time to do that.”
The Blue Devils (7-3) rode the inside strength of junior Jhileiya Dunlap and sophomore Jaelynn Murray in winning the first regular season matchup. Dunlap scored 14 points and Murray added 12 in the low-scoring affair, but it was their interior defense that made the biggest difference.
The duo combined to block 12 shots and contested several others in limiting Lower Richland to 13-of-70 shooting from the field.
“Dunlap and Murray are basically our offense and defense,” Jones said. “They play both ends of the floor equally well, handle the ball, block shots and score. They’re the core and leaders of our team, because we’re still young and feeling our way.”
Neither team led by more than six points and there were eight lead changes and seven ties. Each team held brief three-point leads in the first half before the Blue Devils used a 9-3 spurt to open the fourth quarter to take control.
Chelsea Wilson opened the quarter with an offensive stickback before Murray nailed a jumper to make it 29-26. Alaysia Washington made it a one-point game with a rebound basket before Wilson made two free throws, Daija Parks hit another free throw and Murray added two more free throws to make it 34-28 with 4:53 remaining.
“All of their points come from the paint, and you have to be able to contain that,” Stroman said. “Then, all of our points come from the outside, and that neutralizes anything we try in the post. When we do get loose, we have to make layups, and we didn’t do it. That’s what hurt us there when they were able to build that little lead in the fourth.”
The Diamonds (5-4) didn’t go away without a fight. Kameron Roach, who had a game-high 20 points, connected on her fourth 3-pointer to make it 34-31. Washington added a rebound basket with 1:32 remaining to make it a one-point lead, 34-33.
Dunlap scored off a miss with 52 seconds remaining before she sealed it with a free throw to stretch the lead to 37-33 with 25 seconds left.
After a free throw by Roach with seven seconds remaining, Lower Richland had a final chance to force overtime, but a 3-pointer attempt at the buzzer missed.
Jones also hopes this is a learning experience for her team.
“I wasn’t pleased with the way we ended the game with sloppy play and not playing disciplined in our half-court set,” she said. “But, I’m pleased we found a way to get away.”
LR: Kameron Roach 20, Hicklin 6, Washington 4, Nuttry 2, Archie 2. D: Jhileiya Dunlap 14, Jaelynn Murray 12, Hires 6, Wilson 4, Parks 1. Recs.: D 6-2, LR 5-4.