Line Dance: Gators use free throws to advance
Dantez Bennamon's philosophy on free-throw shooting is one he's heard his coach preach to Goose Creek High School players all year long.
“If you shoot them all the same way, you'll have the same result,” the junior guard said after scoring 19 of his game-high 24 points from the charity stripe in Goose Creek's 57-47 victory over Sumter in the Lower State final on Friday at Florence Civic Center.
Bennamon was perfect from the line as the Gators countered struggles from the field by going 33 of 36 on free throws against the Gamecocks.
Bennamon also added nine rebounds and five steals for the Gators.
“You'll take an ugly win in the playoffs,” said Bennamon. “It's just about moving on.”
The Gators (22-4) meet unbeaten Irmo, a 63-49 winner over Hillcrest in the Upper State final, in Friday's state title game in Columbia. Tip off is set for 8:30 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena.
Sumter led 26-23 with 3:50 left in the third quarter before the Gators went on a 24-4 run to take control. They did most of their damage from the charity stripe in the run, making 15 free throws. Bennamon made nine free throws during the stretch and knocked down a long 3-pointer.
Sumter cut its deficit to 52-43 with 1:22 left but Chris Singleton made 5 of 6 free throws in the home stretch for the Gators. Singleton had 13 points.
• For a number of Gators on the basketball team, including Bennamon, a championship would ease the sting of a football season cut short by the South Carolina High School League. The Gators were 13-0 in football season and only two wins away from back-to-back titles before being bounced from the postseason for using an ineligible player.
“Coach (Blake) Hall has been on us every day to get better,” Bennamon said. “This is special for us.”
The Gators began the year with a last-second loss to Class AA Timberland, which didn't even make the postseason, and later surrendered over 100 points to a team in a holiday tournament in December. That 36-point loss was one of the worst over the last two decades.
Goose Creek last won a state championship in 2009 but Hall, the first-year Gators coach, has a chance to go back-to-back. Last winter, he guided North Charleston to the Class AA championship.
Hall is a perfect 9-0 in postseason games as a high school coach in South Carolina.
He said last year's North Charleston team had more experience and they leaned heavily on senior leadership. They didn't have big-game jitters.
The Gators do have six seniors but lean more on sophomores and juniors. Bennamon, an all-state pick, and Singleton are both junior guards and forward Jordan McElveen is a sophomore. They will also likely start seniors Shaquille Patrick, a guard, and post player DeShawn Evans.
“My group last year was very mature,” Hall said. “They weren't nervous. They were anxious to get on the court and play. (This team) has become more mature and experienced as the year has gone on, and hopefully when they get in the arena on Friday they don't worry about the things they can't control … the court is the same length and the hoops are the same height.”
The 28-0 Yellow Jackets are playing in their third state title game in three years. They won the Class AAAA title in 2011.
Irmo got 12 points from Justin McKie and nine more from Amir Ealey in its Upper State win over Hillcrest.
“I don't see many weaknesses,” Hall said. “They seem very deep and very well-coached. They're very athletic.”
The Yellow Jackets, who have gone wire to wire as the state's No. 1 team, have two senior all-state picks in McKie, a 6-4 small forward, and 6-0 point guard Detrick Browning.
“We have stayed focused the entire year,” Irmo coach Tim Whipple said. “We started the year No. 1 and we haven't lost a game … we hope we can finish it out and make this year very special.”
The two teams have one common opponent, Ridge View.
Irmo defeated the Blazers by 34 and 25 during the regular season, while Goose Creek knocked off Ridge View by 26 in the third round of the playoffs.
The Gators have won 10 in a row going back to a 43-39 region loss to West Ashley on Jan. 11.
Goose Creek principal Jimmy Huskey says the Gators have nothing to lose.
“Our basketball team is such a big story,” he said. “They were picked to finish third in the region or not even make the playoffs. For them to come out, play so hard and get this chance, it's been a tremendous story. I'm so proud of them win, lose or draw.”