Bengals Set Sights on State Title

Members of the Blythewood High School boys’ basketball squad celebrate their overtime victory over Irmo in Saturday’s Lower State championship game. The Bengals face Upper State champions Dorman for the Class 5A state title at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. (Photo/Jason Arthur)

COLUMBIA (March 2, 2017) – Blythewood head coach Zeke Washington’s basketball teams all have a similar look.

They play fast. They run up and down the floor on offense and defense. They put on full presses and punch balls out of opponents’ hands. They do as much as they can to take an early lead and keep holding onto it until the final buzzer.

“We have to play fast. That’s my thing, what we’ve done throughout the years,” Washington said Monday at the 5A press conference at the High School League office in Columbia. “We’re a motion team, a fast-break team that goes into motion, we like to keep the tempo up.”

This system was good enough for Washington’s Fairfield Central team to storm through the 1997-1998 season and capture the 3A state championship. In 2004, it was good enough for Washington’s Chester girls’ team to take a 3A crown.

In his fifth year with the Bengals, Washington prepares to take the team to the 2017 5A state championship game. Blythewood plays Dorman at 8:30 Friday night at the Colonial Center.

The Bengals (23-5) defeated Irmo 61-50 in overtime to earn the lower state championship Saturday at the Florence Civic Center. Meanwhile, Dorman (22-5) rallied past, then routed Gaffney 61-47 at the Bon Secours Arena in Greenville.

The two teams, which run similar fast-break styles, overcame challenges in the upper and lower state championships to reach the final game.

The Cavaliers trailed Gaffney 15-9 after the first quarter, but used steady and solid defensive play over the next two quarters to rally and build a lead on the Indians.

“I looked in these guys’ eyes and felt like they were confident,” Dorman head coach Thomas Ryan said about his starters, all seniors. “They knew we needed to play better, but they knew that it would start on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers took care of business in the second and third quarters, holding Gaffney to one field goal through the second quarter and halfway through the third. In the meantime, Dorman built a 37-26 lead by the start of the fourth.

“When we held Gaffney to one field goal over 12 minutes, that was big,” Ryan said. “It’s also nice for what you teach and preach, you see it happen. These guys believe it starts from the defensive end. Playing great defense. When we’re able to get up and down and make some shots and play fast, and it can really get fun, but you have to be able to do the dirty work and get stops and rebounds.”

Blythewood, on the other hand, had their hands full with Region V-5A rival and co-champion Irmo in Florence. Both teams battled through three quarters, but at the start of the fourth quarter the Bengals were up 38-30.

The Yellow Jackets crept back into the game, and eventually led 48-46 in the final seconds of regulation, before senior Josh Bowers weaved past defenders in the lane and put up a tying shot with 0.2 seconds on the clock.

In overtime, senior Keith Matthews hit a 3-pointer before Irmo’s only overtime score made it 51-50 Blythewood. A Jacobi Bailey basket and eight foul shots sealed the lower state title win and the trip to Columbia to battle Dorman.

Playing two region rivals in the postseason, Irmo and Lexington (which Blythewood defeated 74-71 last week), is a reflection of how tough the region is, and has been, for the Bengals.

“Just playing through that region and the coaches that we have there has prepared us for a moment like this,” Washington said. “Our region is like the ACC. Every night we faced somebody that was very good; great athletes, coached very, very well. It’s like going to a clinic every night.”

Leading the way for the Bengals has been Tre Jackson, averaging 14.0 points per game, and Robert Braswell, who has 11.2 ppg. But as anyone who watches Blythewood play regularly can attest, anyone from the team can contribute and have a big night.

The starting lineup for the postseason has been Jackson, Matthews, Jonathan Breeland, Kameron Riley and Khalil Shakir-Harris. Within a few minutes of play, Braswell, Bowers, Jacobi Bailey, Savion Dawkins and others can come in.

Rotations in and out are a regular thing for the Bengals, whom Washington said need to stay fresh while running the pressure offense and defense throughout the game.

“We’re very similar (to Dorman). They play 10 people, we play 10 people every quarter,” Washington said. “It’s tough to get kids to buy into that, because their parents don’t want them to ever come out of the game.”

When the system Washington runs brings you to the final game of the season, that criticism subsides.

“When you have a team like ours, where the kids actually start believing that the system will work, it’s beautiful to see,” he said.