FRIDAY NIGHT’S Class 4A boys state championship basketball game put the life back in Colonial Life Arena. Gaffney’s 58-55 victory against Lexington was one for the ages.
Unfortunately for Lexington, one team had to lose.
“It will be one of the hardest postgame talks,” Lexington coach Bailey Harris said before addressing his team behind the closed doors in the locker room afterward. You can be sure there was not a dry eye in the room.
Playing shorthanded before the game, Lexington continued to lose players as the game wore on. Star Shaq Roland fouled out with 7.1 seconds remaining in regulation. Then, before the tip to start overtime, forward Nygel Gates and guard Sam McDermott departed with leg cramps.
It became a war of attrition, one Lexington had won for nearly 31 minutes of regulation. The Wildcats faced long odds to begin with because senior point guard Joby Glymph sat on the sideline in street clothes after injuring his knee in the Lower State championship game.
Yet Lexington did not miss a beat at that position. Jack Edelson and McDermott performed admirably, with some help from Roland, against a Gaffney pressure defense that would have made most teams wither and wilt.
Lexington did not commit a second-half turnover until the 1:30 mark of the fourth quarter.
“I can’t complain (about that),” Harris said. “You see that kind of pressure and you’re missing your point guard for 36 minutes. The kids just stepped up and played really big. ... Jack Edelson and Sam and those guys handling the ball, phenomenal against their pressure considering your starting point guard is sitting over here the whole game.”
Lexington dictated the game’s tempo throughout, making a speedy quick and athletic Gaffney team play to the half court. Gaffney, considered the heavy favorite after knocking off highly regarded Irmo in the Upper State final, managed only a handful of fast-break baskets.
The lead see-sawed throughout, much to the delight of the crowd, which provided more excitement and noise than for any South Carolina men’s or women’s home game this season.
Then Roland stepped to the fore. A pair of driving 5-footers sandwiched around a three-point play gave Lexington a 46-39 lead with 2:48 left in regulation. The Wildcat fans, who must have accounted for a sizeable chunk of the Town of Lexington’s population, could taste a third state championship under Harris and first since 2000.
But Roland, who carried the team and showed why he would be a top-level prospect in basketball if he did not choose to play football at USC, made an error in judgment at the end of regulation that forced overtime.
Roland first missed two free throws with 10.7 seconds left and Lexington leading 50-48. Then he fouled Gaffney’s L.J. Peak with 7.1 seconds remaining, and the sophomore star in the making sank both free throws.
Even worse, the foul was Roland’s fifth, and he was unavailable for overtime. When Gates and McDermott joined him on the sideline, the chances of Lexington winning in the extra period seemed either slim or none.
But that kind of assessment would only come from someone who has not watched this Lexington team play all season. Despite returning nine seniors, Harris said his team struggled early in the season because of injuries, three key players (Roland, Jalen Cook and Taquan West) joining the team late after football season and appearances by Roland and Cook in all-star football games.
“There was never any animosity or ill-will there,” Harris said. “It was just a matter of getting everybody there and figuring out what everybody’s role was going to be and getting comfortable with it.”
Once Lexington found its rhythm, it never broke stride. The Wildcats went unbeaten in region play and stretched their winning streak to 13 before facing Gaffney in the championship for the second time in three years.
Gaffney had dominated Lexington during summer team camp competition at Presbyterian College, leading Harris to believe that he had seen the best team in the state. Playing short-handed on Friday, that meant Lexington had to dig deep to come up with its biggest effort of the season.
The Wildcats did just that, and that is precisely why it was so difficult for Harris and his team to swallow the overtime loss. “Extremely difficult,” Harris said. “Very difficult,” he repeated. “About as tough as they come,” he added.
“That’s the kind of heart and effort you expect to have on a night like tonight,” Harris said. “You’d have been disappointed at anything less. They gave everything they had. The effort was there.”
Unfortunately, one team had to lose.