AIKEN 48, JAMES ISLAND 36
The Aiken High boys' basketball team found a way Monday night to be able to practice again Tuesday.
The third-ranked Hornets were relentless defensively in their Class AAAA playoff opener against James Island, forcing the visitors into turnover after turnover and missed shot after missed shot in a 48-36 win to advance to the second round and keep their state championship hopes alive.
"They're a team that averages 70 points a game, so we knew coming in that we had to defend," said Hornets head coach Darris Jackson. "They shoot the ball well. We knew coming in that they have several guys that in warmups don't miss, it looked like. We knew we had to guard. Our guys accepted the challenge that we can't let these guys have any easy touches or open looks."
It wasn't a crisp night offensively for the Hornets (13-7), but their defense was so good that they still led for practically the entire game. An early 4-0 James Island lead was quickly followed by a 9-0 Aiken run, and the Hornets stayed in front the rest of the way.
RJ Felton scored a team-high 11 points on a night when many shots didn't fall, but he more than made up with it with his ruthless play on defensive and the glass – he snagged 13 rebounds.
Demarcus Mazone also had 13 rebounds to go along with nine points as he continues to elevate his level of play in the biggest games of the season.
Clay Howard scored seven of his nine points during the first quarter to jump-start Aiken's offense, and Jackson praised the defense he and Nate Holland played to keep their talented opponents from getting into any kind of rhythm offensively.
"Clay Howard had the best game of his career. He had nine points, but most importantly he held one of their leading scorers to six. That was big-time on his end," Jackson said. "He really locked in on film, really locked in at practice, and he came out and performed at a high level. When you play hard, sometimes the ball finds you. He was able to get some early buckets to get us going, and that was a big boost for us."
Aiken sent waves of substitutions at James Island, rotating players in and out so they could go all-out defensively to wear down the Trojans over the course of four quarters.
That strategy wouldn't be possible, though, if the players coming off the bench didn't produce. They did, as they've continued to do as the season has progressed.
The Hornets led 16-6 through one quarter, and they held the Trojans at arm's length the rest of the way. Any time James Island would cut the deficit to six or eight, Aiken would take the ball back and extend its advantage.
Up next for Aiken is a road date Thursday at fifth-ranked Hartsville, an 80-57 winner over Beaufort on Monday, with a spot in the Lower State championship game on the line.
"We've got an extremely tough game on Thursday," Jackson said. "They're as talented and as big as anybody. We probably won't have a size advantage, ever, in the playoffs. We're looking forward to the challenge. Hartsville's a heck of a basketball team. It will be a tough one, but we're excited for it. I believe in this group of kids."