It took more than two decades for Bishop England girls basketball coach Paul Runey to get his team to the state final. Now, playing for the state title is not a dream but an expectation.
Runey’s program is playing in the Class AA championship game for the fifth consecutive year, having won three of the last four titles. Bishop England (25-2) is seeking a third straight championship trophy on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena, facing the only team that has prevented a four-peat to this point — Keenan High of Columbia. Keenan (19-6) beat Bishop England in the 2013 final.
“Work ethic is the whole deal,” Runey said this week. “We don’t have a senior player that’s going to play in college. We hardly ever do. This team, this year, is very close. The chemistry, I believe, is our strength. They have been playing together since the sixth or seventh grade. They really do have a strong bond, on and off the court.”
Senior point guard Jo Jo Tompkins, who averages 11.3 points, 4.6 steals and 4.1 assists per game, agrees with her coach about the team’s unified goal and purpose.
“In our program, winning is a big thing, but teamwork is more important,” Tompkins said. “We’re not just a team. We actually like each other and we are good friends. We can push each other to get us to where we want to be as a team because we all realize what the biggest goal is — to win a state championship.”
The Bishops enter the final on a roll, winning 14 straight games since a Jan. 9 loss to Wando. Nine of those victories have come by at least 40 points and the closest game during the streak was an eight-point win over Dillon in the lower state semifinals.
Bishop England plays pressure defense, shares the basketball on offense and generally out-hustles every opponent.
“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on stats and we don’t have girls who look to pad their own stats,” Runey said. “We pass the ball. We push the ball and run as much as we can. Our defense creates a lot of offense. Our big thing is defense.”
Opponents average only 31.5 points per game and shoot less than 30 percent from the field against Bishop England. The Bishops average 20.4 steals per game but also average 17 assists per game — a testament to passing and team play.
Junior Rhetta Moore is the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game.
Aside from Tompkins, no other player averages in double figures but four others — Erin Rose (8.0 ppg), Hannah Corbett (7.1 ppg), Caroline McQueeney (7.3 ppg) and Christine Egede (6.7 ppg) — are active in the scoring column.
Keenan presents a major challenge for Bishop England. Runey likes to attack the basket but Keenan is one of the top shot-blocking teams in the state. Le’on Hill, Keenan’s 6-2 senior center, has blocked 106 shots this season, including 20 swats in the upper state title game last weekend. Hill also has 96 steals
“They are the tallest, most physical team we have played this year and they block a lot of shots,” Runey said. “They rebound well and they have solid outside shooters. We definitely face some challenges in this game that we have not faced this season.
“We like to go inside and that will be more difficult on Saturday. We have to figure out how to get the ball inside and maybe get them in foul trouble. That may be a big key to the game.”