On Friday at the Bi-Lo Center, Irmo battered the Hillcrest Rams 63-49 to advance to the Class 4A state championship game for the second time in three years.
“So far through 28 games, our guys have met every challenge,” coach Tim Whipple said of his undefeated Yellow Jackets. “Now, we’ve gotten to the point we wanted to be, and now the last game will define our season.”
The Yellow Jackets led throughout the Upper State final, despite a slow offensive start, as the Rams (23-4) had a dismal field goal shooting performance.
Irmo had an advantage from the beginning, as its big inside presence edged out the Rams’ four-guard set. Hillcrest got half of its first-half points off free throws, and Randall Shaw’s 3-point shot kept it a one-possession game while the Yellow Jackets were 3-of-8 from the field in the quarter.
But Hillcrest was having even more trouble.
The Rams sank two baskets in the quarter and were outrebounded, falling behind by as many as 11 points.
The Yellow Jackets double-teamed Hillcrest’s leading scorer, Tre Smith, to hold him to 10 points in the half — eight of those points were off free throws — and took a 27-18 lead into the break.
The Rams were scoreless for seven minutes surrounding the break, and were 1-of-10 from the field in the first five minutes of the second half.
Meanwhile, 3-pointers from Alex Quillen, Justin McKie and Ryan Favor broke the game open for the Yellow Jackets. With its offense rolling, Irmo stretched its lead to 19 points by the start of the final period.
And despite his team playing what he called the best half court defense of his career, Whipple was not sure that a Hillcrest rally was not in the works.
“The way they press and as athletic as they are, we needed a 20-point lead at the end to feel comfortable,” Whipple said.
And the Yellow Jackets got that, largely off the strength of strong rebounding and second-chance buckets from players such as Javis Howard and Jevante Gross.
“All our post guys did a super job tonight of picking up trash and getting us points,” he said.
McKie posted 12 points for Irmo, while Smith posted 15 points in the second half to lead the game with 25.