Irmo coach Tim Whipple has preached all season that his top-ranked Yellow Jackets are only as good as they play on defense. They rely on that defense to produce easy baskets in transition to try and jump-start the offense.
The opportunities to get out and run were limited but Irmo executed well enough to claim a 42-34 victory against No. 2 Richland Northeast on Friday night in a key Region 4-4A showdown.
“If it wasn’t for our defense, we would have been in trouble,” Whipple said. “I have to give all the credit to those young men because they worked so hard on the defensive end of the floor and took away what Richland Northeast does best. I’m extremely proud of them.”
The Yellow Jackets (17-0, 3-0) slowed the big three of Devante Anderson, Quiron Cooke and Aaron Scott enough to pull away. Those three combined for 30 points — Cooke was the leader with 15 — but it wasn’t enough against a scrappy, relentless defensive attack. It seemed like Irmo pressed at the right times and gave the Cavaliers enough different looks in the halfcourt to disrupt their system.
Richland Northeast (13-4, 2-1) had 16 turnovers and shot 11-of-42 from the field, including 4-of-21 in the first half.
“We have not seen a lot of zone at all this year and we didn’t do a good job on offense in the halfcourt,” RNE coach Jason Powell said. “We just didn’t shoot it well, and a lot of that is because of Irmo. They’re a good defensive team and they caused a lot of our problems.”
The Yellow Jackets offense got a huge boost from the play of Detrek Browning. The senior continued his hot play with 23 points, six rebounds and six steals. He scored 16 of Irmo’s 23 points in the second half and his flurry after Richland Northeast trimmed the lead to two early in the third quarter proved crucial.
After trailing 19-11 at the half, Cooke scored eight points out the gate on two 3-pointers and a jumper in the lane to pull RNE to within two at 21-19. That would be as close as the Cavaliers would get as Browning nailed a 3-pointer in the corner, got a steal in the backcourt for a layup and added another three to push the lead to 29-21.
“We cut it to down right there at the start of the third quarter but they come down and hit a three and we turn it over and they score again to get it right back to a seven- or eight-point game,” Powell said. “We never could get over that hump that we needed to get over.”
Browning has assumed the point guard duties this season for the first time but he was able to give the ball-handling duties over to South Carolina commit Justin McKie in the second half. That allowed Browning to get free against the zone defense.
Browning was 8-of-14 from the field with three 3-pointers.
“What we’re trying to do a little more is for Detrek to give the ball up and move around and get to areas to where he is more comfortable shooting it,” Whipple said. “Against a zone, we can do it a little more. RNE is so long and big, it’s difficult to get good looks and shots but he was able to get some good looks and knock them down.”
Irmo trailed 7-3 early as they committed four of their nine turnovers in the opening quarter. They took their first lead on the opening basket of the second quarter, a 3-pointer from McKie. He scored eight points in a second quarter that saw the Yellow Jackets outscore the Cavaliers 14-4. Irmo kept a comfortable working margin for most of the second half. They led by eight entering the fourth quarter and it never got closer than seven in the fourth quarter.
A lot of that had to do with Browning’s play. He scored 13 points in a row at one point.
“Being at home, this was a must-win situation for us,” Whipple said. “It’s a great win and puts us ahead in the region now. But we have tough games on the road coming up.”
RNE – Quiron Cooke 15, Anderson 8, Scott 7, Benjamin 2, Phillips 2. I – Detrek Browning 23, McKie 9, Gross 4, Ealey 2, Howard 2, Ferguson 2.