The North Charleston boys basketball team did well to advance to Saturday's Class AA Lower State title game after second-round eliminations in each of the past three seasons at the Class AAA level.
But that's where the Cougars' season would end as Mullins held off North Charleston's comeback bid, winning, 65-59,
at The Citadel's McAlister Field House
The win earns Mullins (25-3) a matchup with defending state champion Keenan in the Class AA title game next Saturday at the Colonial Center in Columbia.
The return trip to the state championship contest after a one-year hiatus is extra special for the Auctioneers. Coach Mark Gerald continues to fight his battle with cancer, causing him to miss practices and games due to in-season chemotherapy treatments, the most recent of which was Monday.
Mullins' high-pressure defense forced eight North Charleston turnovers in the first quarter as the Auctioneers built a 19-10 lead after the first eight minutes of play.
But the Cougars narrowed the margin to 29-26 at halftime before Anthony Williams' four points in just over a one-minute span midway through the third quarter put North Charleston on top, 31-30, for the first time since the game's opening seconds. The lead was short-lived, however, and Mullins scored 10 unanswered points to close out the frame with a 44-36 advantage.
"It just kind of got away from (us) in the third quarter," said Cougars coach Jacob Smith. "And Mullins really kept playing great fundamental basketball in order to keep that lead that they built."
North Charleston (21-7) pulled within four points on three separate occasions in the fourth quarter, but the Auctioneers drained 6 of 7 free-throw attempts in the contest's final minute to hang on for the win.
Darnell Coleman and Trevor Dantzler carried the offensive load for Mullins, recording 19 and 18 points, respectively. Bernard Samuels and Jamal Baldwin tallied 12 points apiece for the Cougars.
Both squads attempted 55 shots from the field. But while the Auctioneers were content to shoot from the perimeter -- evident in their 15 3-point attempts -- North Charleston was determined to put the ball inside.
"We thought we had an advantage down low," said Smith, whose squad concludes its season with a 21-7 record.
The Cougars finished the game without a 3-point field goal in 5 total attempts.
"It's very disappointing," Smith said of falling just short of the state title game. "Chances like this don't come every day. We tried to make the best out of it, but hopefully next year we'll have the opportunity to get back here again."
Mullins (65): Coleman 19, Jenkins 4, Dantzler 18, Harley 9, Brown 0, Crawford 11, Constant 2, Jackson 2.
North Charleston (59): Samuels 12, Shaheed 7, Gadson 8, Parker 2, Brown 8, Baldwin 12.