Carvers Bay’s game in the Class A Lower State finals Saturday is going to have an anomaly.
The Bears’ opponent – Whale Branch Early College High School – will be playing yet another game without two of its top players in uniform. Brothers Michael and Simeon Middleton are Seventh Day Adventists, and with the Sabbath being observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the 12:30 p.m. tip-off at the Florence Civic Center is out of the question.
“When they play, we’re a different team,” Whale Branch coach Linc Lyles said Wednesday. “If I had it my choice, they would play every day. But at the same time, this is the country we live in. You respect people’s religion.
“It isn’t the issue that people think it is with our kids. We got used to it.”
Indeed, the Warriors have more than adjusted. Despite missing Simeon’s 13.5 points and four rebounds and Michael’s 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds for seven contests this season, Whale Branch (23-3) has continued to thrive.
Lyles’ team did not lose a single game with the two out of the lineup this year, and that included a victory last Friday over Timmonsville in the second round of the Class A playoffs.
There’s a pretty simple reason for it.
Whale Branch, which opened in 2010, has burst onto the state’s basketball scene quicker than any other school in recent memory. The Warriors spent more than a month this year as the No. 1 team in Class A before a late region road loss dropped the Warriors to No. 4 in the final regular-season poll. Of the team’s three losses, one came against Class AAA Hilton Head and another at the hands of an out-of-state opponent.
Even without the Middletons playing, the Warriors have proved themselves as worthy of Saturday’s game.
“They’re very deep,” Carvers Bay coach Jeff Mezzatesta said. “They’ve done this all year. They’ve played all year long, and they were the No. 1 team in the state.”
That said, Mezzatesta said he isn’t sure what to expect. He didn’t want to get into too many specifics regarding whether or not the Middletons would play.
“We’re going to prepare for what we see on film,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Therefore, we have to prepare to play Whale Branch. We can’t make any assumptions. They’re not one or two superstars. They’re a complete team. That’s a thing you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.”
That’s because Whale Branch also has a couple other players who have turned a few heads. Senior guard Dee Delaney was named to the Class A All-State squad after averaging more than 11 points and eight rebounds per game during the regular season. Junior forward Denzel Daniel also put up more than seven points and seven rebounds per game.
Throw in another handful of players, and even without the Middletons, it’s a eight- or nine-player rotation that has been known to wear down opponents.
“I treat it like a NASCAR race; you’re pit-stopping guys and others are running round and round until they get tired,” Lyles said. “We gear our guys to go into double overtime, triple overtime. The longer the game goes on, the more we believe it goes into our advantage.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a similar approach Carvers Bay employs. Both teams will press on defense, and both will run on offense.
One of the key components of the Bears’ strategy, guard Walter Linnen, expects the wrinkle of Whale Branch’s absences Saturday to only make film work and time on the court before Saturday that much more important.
The team will have tape of the Warriors with and without the Middleton’s on the court.
“We just prep for everything else, prepare for the whole thing, whether they’re playing or not,” Linnen said. “It comes down to practice.”