By JOHN DEVLIN - Special to The State
SUMTER – For the first time, SCISA’s Class 3A state boys basketball championship game will be an all-Columbia affair.
Region 1 rivals Cardinal Newman and Hammond earned the right to square off in the season finale today at 8 p.m. at the Sumter Civic Center by passing semifinal tests on Friday. Cardinal Newman (17-10) beat pre-tournament favorite Porter-Gaud 63-49, and Hammond (22-4) followed suit in the nightcap with a 63-55 win over region rival Augusta Christian.
The Cardinals and Skyhawks split two region clashes during the regular season. Hammond won big at Cardinal Newman in the first meeting of the teams, while the Cardinals nipped the Skyhawks in the rematch.
“It’s never easy facing a team three times in the same season, but we’re going to have to do for the second time in two days,” said Mark McClam after his Skyhawks downed AC for the third time. “We know each other very well, so there won’t be a lot of surprises. It will come down to the team that executes the best.”
Cardinal Newman rode the brilliant play of senior Austin Ajukwa in the second half to blow away the Cyclones. The Clemson-bound senior scored 27 of his 34 points in the second half and was particularly dominant as the Cardinals went on a decisive 32-19 run in the fourth quarter.
“It certainly helps when your have the best player in the state, in my opinion, on the floor in a situation where the other team was ratcheting up the pressure,” said CN coach David Ross.
“We looked to get him the ball and looked to him to make the right decisions, to be the playmaker whether it’s him scoring, or passing or hitting the big free throws. Luckily, he plays for us.”
Ajukwa had seven points on 3-for-10 shooting in the first half. He was 8-for-10 from the field and went 11-for-13 at the line after the break. In the fourth quarter, Ajukwa scored 16 points, pulled down four rebounds and had one assist and one steal.
Porter-Gaud’s last bid to stay in the hunt came when K.J. James hit back-to-back 3-pointers to close the gap to 43-38 with 3:55 to go, but the Cardinals responded with quick scores by D.J. Halfacre and John Ragin to restore order. Ragin scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter to take some of the load off Ajukwa.
“The kids have bought in and have been much more focused over the last three weeks,” said Ross. “But we haven’t won anything yet.”
Hammond spent most of the game threatening to blow out the Lions, but Augusta Christian kept scrapping and stayed within hailing distance on good 3-point shooting, particularly by Nick Fortenberry who scored a game-high 22 points and fired in five 3-pointers in the second half.
But in the end, Hammond’s superior balance and size made the difference.
“We had some guys step up for us outside the normal go-to guys and that was a big lift,” said McClam. “I’m really proud of our guys because Augusta Christian played very well and they responded. It was a good team win.”
Seventh Woods and Spencer Carlson were up to par, scoring 21 and 13 points, respectively. Carlson had 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field and seven rebounds in the second half.
Sam Ulmer was also a key figure, scoring 11 of his 13 points after the break.