A season ago, A.C. Flora made an unlikely run to the Class 3A boys’ basketball state championship.
With the return of four key seniors, Flora knew it would enter the 2014-2015 as the favorites to repeat. But they had to face a few hurdles along the way.
First thing, Leon Brunson stepped down as head coach to take a role in administration. That led to the hiring of Joshua Staley, who led the Orangeburg-Wilkinson girls to three state title game appearances between 2009 and 2013.
That transition turned out to be easy.
“Everybody was on the same page from the beginning,” Staley said. “Rion (Davis) and Tyler (Gray) had to get their legs back under them and healthy (from football) but everyone bought in from the beginning. I didn’t have to sell myself or prove anything. They trusted me, I trusted them and here we are again.”
A.C. Flora (25-4) will attempt to defend its Class 3A championship when it meets Midland Valley Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Colonial Life Arena.
Davis and Gray joined 6-9 center Karl Gamble and 6-6 James Murray-Boyles to form a solid nucleus.
They agreed the transition from coach Brunson to Staley was seamless. “We got used to him really quick,” Davis said. “His coaching style lets us go out and be ourselves and play the game. That makes it much easier on the court.”
Gray said Staley “is a good dude and he holds us accountable. It was easy for us to trust him and buy into what he wanted to do.”
The added pressure of being the hunted instead of the hunter was a different perspective.
They lost three times in December – to Westwood and out of state teams Northside Christian Academy from Charlotte and Hillgrove from Powder Springs, Ga.
Since then, Flora has won 15 out of 16 games with the lone loss a two-point setback to Dreher in the regular-season finale.
“It’s been a tough load knowing every night you go into a game that you’re going to get your opponent’s best effort because they want to beat you because you’re the No. 1 team,” said Davis, a two-sport standout who will play football at Liberty. “We’ve played together and gutted it out to get back here for a shot at another ring.”
The four seniors contribute over 55 points per game and a steadying demeanor in the heat of battle.
Davis is 6-foot-1 but with his physical style is a force in the paint. He has a way of creating his own shot and is tough on the offensive glass. Gamble, who has signed with Middle Tennessee, brings a finesse game around the basket and provides a solid second line of defense to allow the Flora guards to gamble for steals.
Murray-Boyles presents a match-up problem for most opposing teams. He has the ability to play inside but can step out and hit the three-pointer as well. Gray runs the point and often calls the plays without assistance from the bench.
It was almost a perfect fit for Staley’s coaching style.
“I knew coming in they were winners,” Staley said. “I knew they were great kids, great students so that was a great foundation to start with. They were really good role models for the younger kids so that helped us get the program in place. They’ve embraced having the bulls-eye on their back. I think it helped us get through a lot of tough situations this season.”
A.C. Flora has won their four playoff games by an average of 28 points per game. They thought the loss to Dreher reset things and allowed them to become more focused on winning the school’s fifth state title.
“Having four seniors and some other guys that were here last year, we kind of know what it takes,” Gray said. “These last three or four weeks of the season has been our best practices. We’ve stayed focused on the task at hand and now we’re one step away.”