Da’Shaun Aiken saw what was unfolding.
Despite a huge second quarter that sent him and his Carvers Bay teammates in the locker room at halftime with a slim lead over Whale Branch, the Bears watched as their second-half shots continue to miss. During a span of eight-plus minutes in the third and fourth quarters, Carvers Bay’s lead evaporated and then turned into a big deficit.
Eventually, the Bears’ season ended with a 73-60 loss in the Class A Lower State championship game. It prevented the school from making its first appearance in the state finals.
“It would have meant a lot to us,” Aiken said. “In basketball, we’ve never made it to the state championship. We were trying to make history. This is much harder – much tougher.”
Aiken, the Class A Player of the Year, had another stellar game, especially early. He pumped in 21 first-half points en route to a game-high 27 overall.
But it was when his teammates were also rock solid that Carvers Bay appeared to have a great shot at playing one more game this season.
Forward Darius Williams had 10 points and eight rebounds in the second quarter alone. Shayton Durand was also strong on the boards, finishing with eight. However, for as great as the Bears played in the second quarter, the third and fourth belonged to the Warriors.
It was due to a simple fact – Whale Branch got production from a handful of players taking advantage of coach Linc Lyles’ substitution patterns. Lyles had little choice.
Brothers Simeon and Michael Middleton, the team’s leading and third-leading scorers, did not play in the game in observance of their faith to the Seventh Day Adventist church. Lyles did not talk about the players specifically after the game, although he repeatedly mentioned “distractions.”
One of those was the awe of a small-school team that’s only been around for three seasons playing in the large Florence Civic Center. He used his inner Norman Dale and brought his players into the gym Friday evening.
“I didn’t even tell them what we were doing,” Lyles said. “We got out of the bus in the pouring rain and I told them to go in that building. They didn’t even know what this building was. We walked around. They were ooh-ing and aah-ing. I said ‘Alright, let’s get it all out now.’”
The trick, much like Lyles’ passionate sideline antics, may have helped.
Whale Branch got a team-high 22 points from All-State selection Dee Delaney, 21 from Denzel Daniel and 15 from freshman Justin Rhode. The three combined for 17 fourth-quarter points, the same time Carvers Bay shooters were starting to go cold.
“We struggled shooting. And that’s one of the things that worried me,” Bears coach Jeff Mezzatesta said. “I’m proud of their effort. They just didn’t have enough left in the tank to get it there at the end.”
Some of that was by design.
Lyles said earlier in the week that he intended to use the full complement of players to wear down the Bears. He stayed true to his word.
Less than two minutes into the game, Lyles replaced all five starters at once, only to sub four other players back into the game less than one minute after that.
The pattern slowed as specific Whale Branch players started to find a rhythm late. But its effects were felt.
“I think you saw two even teams, and the only time there was a difference was the last five to six minutes of the game,” Lyles said. “We’ve just got a gear that no one else has.”
That extra gear propelled the Warriors (24-3) into their first championship game. There, Whale Branch will face Lewisville, the Upper State representative in the state title game.
Carvers Bay and Mezzatesta will have to wait at least one more year for that opportunity. The Bears, ranked most of the season in the top five in Class A, will be losing eight seniors, including Aiken, point guard Walter Linnen and Shayton and Shaquan Durand.
“I love these boys. They’re family to me,” Mezzatesta said. “I wanted it so bad for them. But you don’t always get what you want; you get what you need. There’s a bigger picture from it. They got close. They just have to find a way to get over that hump.”
•WHALE BRANCH (73)
– Dee Delaney 22, Denzel Daniel 21, Justin Rhode 15, Terrell Hazel 8, Jay Abney 3, Charles Jiles 3, Malik Spiker 1
•CARVERS BAY (60)
– Da’Shaun Aiken 27, Shayton Durand 14, Darius Williams 10, Shaquan Durand 6, Walter Linnen 2, Nigel Gamble 1
• 3-point goals: Whale Branch 5 (Rhode 2, Delaney 2, Jiles); Carvers Bay 3 (Aiken 3). Team fouls: Whale Branch 19, Carvers Bay 18. Fouled out: None. Technical fouls: None.
• Records: Whale Branch 24-3, Carvers Bay 21-8