Irmo boys basketball coach Tim Whipple is entering his 35th year at the helm, but he was dealt a blow this summer that he’s never had to deal with.
Highly touted junior guard Devontae Shuler transferred to national powerhouse Oak Hill before the start of school, so Whipple had to find a way to replace one of the top talents in the Class of 2017.
Good thing he still has the guard duo of Dre’Von Sweat and Tavonne Bond. They combined with RJ Gunn to score 46 points to lead the Class 4A third-ranked Yellow Jackets to an impressive 69-61 victory over No. 4 Spring Valley on Tuesday in the regular season opener.
“I thought it was a good first game,” Whipple said. “We’re reinventing ourselves right now. We’ve got to see what we can do and continue to work to be able to do those things.”
Sweat and Bond had the advantage of playing with Shuler last season, and they were more known for their shooting than being able to handle the ball and running the offense. They’ve had to adjust and so far the early returns are favorable.
They set the offense up, controlled tempo and keyed the Yellow Jackets’ pressure against a long, athletic Spring Valley team.
“Anytime a team is as physical and athletic as Spring Valley is, and they start putting pressure on your guards, they have to react,” Whipple said. “We haven’t seen that type of pressure to this point. Overall, we handled it pretty well.”
Whipple was overly impressed with the final two minutes. Spring Valley rallied from a 14-point third quarter deficit and took the lead early in the fourth quarter before Sweat and Bond settled things down the stretch.
The Vikings pulled within 58-57 on a layup by Kendall Wall with 2:06 remaining, but wouldn’t get any closer. The Yellow Jackets connected on 7 of 10 free throws and made two huge plays in the final 27 seconds to seal it.
They forced Spring Valley into three turnovers during the stretch and after Jalen Wilson hit a free throw to make it 65-61, Tony Brice rebounded the miss off the second free throw and stuck it back in. Wilson got a steal at midcourt and laid it in for an 8-point lead with 13 seconds remaining. It was a one possession game with 27 left.
“The last two minutes, we made a couple of mistakes but we kept our composure and continued to compete,” Whipple said. “That’s what I really liked. We gave ourselves a chance to win instead of lose.”
It looked for a while the Yellow Jackets would run away handily. Sweat and Bond combined to score 22 first half points to give Irmo a 37-26 lead at the half.
Gunn and Sweat scored eight points out of the locker room, and the lead grew to 46-34, but the Vikings closed the third quarter on an 11-0 run over the final 3:06 to close within one.
Jordan Bruner, who finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, gave the Vikings their first lead since the opening minutes. But it was short-lived as Sweat, Bond and Gunn exerted themselves over the final seven minutes.
“When we hit a drought offensively, it didn’t allow us to put on pressure,” Whipple said. “We stopped trying to look to score and that comes with having confidence with the ball. We weren’t confident with the ball and that’s why we took bad shots. But we kept fighting and made enough plays at the end to win.”
Noah Harper led Spring Valley with 21 points.
In the girls game, No. 1 Spring Valley cruised to 58-43 victory. Christian Hithe led the way for the Vikings with 19 points with Shantay Taylor scoring 13.
Sam Fant scored 15 points for the No. 4 Yellow Jackets.
Irmo 69, Spring Valley 61
SV – Noah Harper 21, Jordan Bruner 15, Jones 8, Wall 7, Myers 6, Ward 2, Alicea 2. I – Dre’Von Sweat 18, RJ Gunn 16, Tavonne Bond 12, Tony Brice 11, Hall 4, Wilson 3, Edwards 3, Jenkins 2.
Spring Valley 58, Irmo 43
SV – Christian Hithe 19, Shantay Taylor 13, Anaja Matthews 10, Lewis 6, Jones 4, Hill 4, Williamson 2. I – Sam Fant 15, DeMoss 7, Hampton 7, Scott 4, Johnson 4, Carter 4, Evans 2.