TEARS WELLED IN the eyes of Bailey Harris as he crouched in front of his heartbroken team in the locker room, just minutes after a state high school basketball championship had slipped away at Colonial Life Arena.
Like many of his players, Harris could not hold back the emotions of knowing there were seven seniors who would never win the high school title they so heavily coveted.
"I had to fight back tears out there," Harris said, "but not because of the loss. It was because of how proud I am of you. You have so much integrity, so much fight, so much not-give-up in you."
Despite the 71-57 loss to Gaffney, the Wildcats' Lower State title and their charge to the state championship game signaled something special for Harris and his program, which once was an annual threat to win region and state titles.
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"To me, you put Lexington basketball back in a position it hadn't been for awhile," Harris told his seniors.
The genesis to what turned out to be a remarkable turnaround for Lexington was a team meeting not long after the Wildcats opened region play with consecutive losses.
"You guys need to decide what you want to do with this season," Harris recalled telling the team.
Matt Welch, a senior guard, described the team as being in turmoil. It is what is expected on any team that features a sophomore superstar, Shaq Roland, surrounded by seven senior role players.
The meeting in the team locker room lasted nearly 30 minutes and included little finger-pointing, according to the players. Instead, each player marched to the eraser board and listed his goals for the season and the goals for the team.
Harris eventually moved the agreed upon team goals to the side of the board. The team vowed to play with heart, give 100 percent effort in practice and games, make each other better players, play as a team and win the region.
Harris was satisfied it had met all those goals in winning 15 of 16 games heading into Friday's title game. It fell short of one other - a loss to White Knoll spoiled a perfect home record - and had a chance to fulfill the final one: "Win State."
The last goal proved unattainable when Lexington could not keep Gaffney off the offensive boards. Time and again, Gaffney converted a missed field goal into a follow-up layup.
It proved to be Lexington's undoing and provided a cruel ending to what otherwise was a magical week in Lexington.
On its bus ride to the game early Friday evening, the team weaved its way through traffic in downtown Lexington behind a Lexington County Sherriff's Department escort of 10 or so squad cars. That is when Harris turned to his assistants and said, "If we play like we've been treated this week, we'll be all right."
The Wildcats' fan base seemed to widen as the week passed. Fans gobbled up 2,500 tickets by Thursday afternoon. Students purchased 700 T-shirts with the "Mission 3:5" slogan on the back, a rallying cry that began at midseason as a tribute to both the Biblical reading in Proverbs 3:5 and the date of Friday's championship game.
"You seniors got the school spirit to where I haven't seen it before," Harris said afterward.
Championship Day began with a 7 a.m. pep rally at the school, then included an early release for the team for a 1:30 spaghetti lunch at the home of assistant coach Joey Reid. The pregame meal followed at 4:30 at the home of Welch, the senior member of the team.
To deal with the noise at Colonial Life Arena, Harris had ear-shattering music pumped into the Lexington High gym for two days of practice and for Friday's early evening shoot-around.
Playing to all of his superstitions, Harris liked the idea his team was designated as the visitor, since Lexington was 2-0 in state championship games as the visitor, winning titles in 1996 and 2000. Oh, and for good measure, Harris wore the same lucky boxer shorts as he did for the 2000 game.
In the end, all the four-leaf clovers, finger-crossings and lucky boxers were not enough. Lexington lost, and afterward in the locker room Harris let his players cry about what might have been. His tears, though, were shed for what was an incredible run that simply fell short.