COLUMBIA - As far back as Josie Dennis can remember, she always wanted to be a Lady Bishop.
Bishop England’s senior point guard idolized former Bishops star Mallory Maloney in elementary school. She was still just a middle schooler when the Bishops began regularly contending for championships. One day, she often thought to herself as she cheered from the stands, that was going be her out there on the court in kelly green hoisting a trophy or two.
Tears streamed down Dennis’ face last season as she watched Bishop England fall in the third round of the playoffs. She felt helpless on the sideline, detached from her teammates with her knee bound to a brace that protected a torn ACL.
She sobbed again on Saturday. This time it was tears of joy with her teammates dancing around her as Bishop England outlasted Keenan 54-46 in the Class AAA girls state championship game at Colonial Life Arena.
The Bishops’ sixth state title in the past eight years extends a run of dominance unmatched at any level of girls high school basketball in South Carolina since the 1930s.
“It’s unbelievable,” said a watery-eyed Dennis. “Last year was such a low. All I’ve thought about the past year is getting back here and winning with my teammates, going out on top. And to end my high school career like this, it’s just a dream come true.”
Bishop England had lost just one game all season but still entered the state title game as perceived underdogs against defending state champion Keenan. Hints of the Bishops' contingent were far outnumbered in a lively crowd dominated by fans of the hometown Raiders. Even Dawn Staley was perched courtside, eyeing Keenan eighth-grade sensation Milaysia Fulwiley, whom the USC women’s basketball coach offered in seventh grade.
“We knew what we were up against,” Bishop England coach Paul Runey said. “We were very concerned about Fulwiley.”
Fulwiley entered averaging 20 points per game. She scored 30 in the Upper State title game and 29 in the state quarterfinals. Runey spent most of his week tearing through hours of tape of opponents trying all types of different defenses to slow her down. Nothing seemed to work. So Runey simplified his approach with a straight-up man defense. He assigned Lily Woods, his quickest player, to Fulwiley and directed Dennis and the rest of his guards to help.
Woods had played sparingly significant minutes this season, mostly just cleanup duty in lopsided wins. The Bishops’ tennis standout took her lumps against the hyper-athletic Fulwiley. She was slammed to the ground, thrown into the stanchion, even tumbled to her knees trying to stay in front of Fulwiley’s crossover. She rose time and again, though, and by the end had limited Fulwiley to 18 points on 29 percent shooting through 32 minutes.
“It’s like a boxing match,” Runey said. “That person hits you in the face and you can’t flinch. You have to get back up. (Woods) got back up every time.
“I told her, ‘Just pretend you’re chasing that tennis ball around the court. Just a bigger ball, that’s really quick and talented.’ That was probably the best game she's ever played.”
Neither team led by more than four points in a physical first half that ended with Bishop England gripping a 22-20 advantage. The Bishops had shot just 30 percent but limited Keenan to 32 percent, and hit 8 of 9 free throws while the Raiders connected on 3 of 9.
“A lot of times, teams think they're going to beat us up,” Runey said. “The thing is, we don’t blow the whistle in practice. We just let them fight it out. And they play the same way in the games. You see these girls fighting and snatching the ball. You can see the emotion in their eyes and you think, ‘We got this.’ ”
Fulwiley hit a 3-pointer to push Keenan ahead 28-26 with three minutes left in the third quarter. More than four minutes would pass before the Raiders scored again.
Bishop England tallied the final 10 points of the third quarter, six from Dennis, and added the first seven of the fourth to open a 43-28 lead with seven minutes to play. All-state senior Katie Brooks scored seven points during the run, five in less than 30 seconds early in the fourth quarter.
“You could feel it,” said Brooks, who finished with a game-high 20 points despite being a game-time decision after tweaking her back during the morning shootaround. “You could feel us taking control, taking the momentum over.”
Dyani Burke hit a pair of 3s to trim the deficit to 43-36 with less than six minutes remaining. Woods stopped the run with a layup in transition. Keenan was then called for a technical foul that set up Brooks for four straight free throws to push the Bishops' lead back into double-digits at 49-36.
“We started turning the ball over a little bit at the end, but the biggest thing was we couldn’t get stops,” Keenan coach Reggie McClain said. “Some of the balls didn’t bounce our way. I think we got frustrated, and we couldn’t get some baskets to fall when we needed them.”
Keenan unleashed a frantic full-court press in the waning minutes. Dennis was unintentionally undercut in the backcourt trying to break the trap. She didn't get up.
“Please not the knee, not again,” Runey thought as he walked over to his senior captain who was writhing in pain, alone on the floor. “Josie would run through a brick wall for this team. She’s one in a million. There’s no way it was supposed to end with her on the ground like that.”
The arena fell silent as Dennis clutched her leg.
“It was so emotional,” Dennis said. “It took me back to last year. I got really scared laying there on the court. Everything is running through your head. Not again, you know? Then I saw the scoreboard and I saw my team and I realized this moment is about more than me.”
Dennis asked to be carried to the sideline as the crowd rained down chants of "Josie" above her. It turned out to be an ankle injury. The trainers tried to escort her into the tunnel, but Dennis begged to go back to the bench. Less than a minute remained, so they obliged. Then she begged Runey to let her go back into the game. He asked her to jump in place first to prove she was all right and then sent her to the scorer’s table. The crowd roared as she hobbled on one leg waiting to check back in. She never actually did, as the final seconds melted away too quickly. But it gave her a head start to limp her way to midcourt where she crashed down into a celebratory dogpile with her teammates.
“It’s all worth it,” Dennis said. “Nothing else matters right now. I love this team and I am so happy we could carry on the tradition of this program. That's all I've ever wanted to do. Everything was worth it. It was all worth it.”