Editor's note: Some quotes have been edited for language.
A sad ending doesn't make a story sad.
Last Saturday, it was a given that the four-year run of state championship appearances for the Scott's Branch boys basketball team was going to come to an end at the USC-Aiken Convocation Center. The Eagles were going to hop on the bus and head back to Summerton with a piece of hardware, just like they had in their previous three trips to the state title game. There were also most likely going to be tears shed either out of joy or sadness.
Late in the second half, the tears of sadness began to flow, and they continued as the Eagles were presented with the piece of hardware they didn't really want after the buzzer sounded on a 63-41 defeat. The tears were ever present in the locker room that was mainly silent outside of the sound of sniffs and sobs. They didn't leave once head coach Kevin Miller arrived in the locker room and addressed his team while efforts were made to console many in the locker room.
This isn't about those tears. One game doesn't define a run. This is a story that won't do that either.
The Eagles may have fallen short of the state title they have come so close to grabbing in four straight appearances, but they still were able to pull off a historic postseason run that put an end to one of the most successful stretches in school history.
Here's how it unfolded.
ROUND 1: THE 'NOT INVITED' GAME
Cross visited Summerton for the opening game in the Eagles' playoff run.
The Eagles were confident there was going to be no one stopping them en route to the state title they'd come so close to capturing. So much so that they posted a playoff bracket with Scott's Branch written as the winner in every upcoming round.
Cross got hit in the mouth early and didn't come close to providing an adequate response. A deep three ball from Tyler Kind to beat the buzzer at the end of the first quarter somewhat foreshadowed how the game was going to go for the Eagles.
A 21-7 lead after one quarter turned into a 38-9 halftime lead. Miller was intent on the Eagles not taking their foot off the gas after the commanding start. The opening round was about sending a message to whomever the Eagles would host in the coming rounds.
"We ain't making no apologies for what's going on," Miller explained sternly at the break. "We want it to be ugly. We want to make a statement for Saturday night. We want whoever we play to know they're not welcome here!"
The second half was much of the same, and the Eagles cruised to a 76-34 win.
Miller was always reluctant to call his guys off the bench backups or reserves but instead referred to them as "plugs." This group of players included most of the team's youth, including Nigel Lawson, Gabriel Johnson and Randy Williams. The game against Cross was the perfect time for them to get some postseason experience.
"It was good to see some success from them," Miller said. "It's always good to see your future getting a chance to play with some more advanced competition. And it did my heart good, especially with Gabriel Johnson. That kid couldn't even dribble a ball two years ago. And I just wanted to keep him out of trouble and keep him focused, and he got better, and now he's on the bench for varsity. That's the father side of me; I like to see success.
This group also included senior Juan Dozier, who was in his first season on the team. For Dozier, being a part of the run was something he'll always value.
"Being a part of this team, even for just a year, has been special," Dozier said. "Especially being a part of this run. Helping us get back to the title game and being that close really puts things into perspective. I'm going to miss the practices, especially those first 30 minutes. The camaraderie with the guys, it's like no other. We're all about to go our separate ways, so this experience is something I'm going to miss for sure."
Dozier is a player who Miller viewed as just as vital as anyone else on the team.
"Juan, I remember him in the eighth grade, and I used to tell him to come to practice," Miller said. "He's a very smart kid but has some basketball ability. He would tell me that he would think about it. Probably nowhere else in South Carolina that somebody would have kept him. He has a great demeanor and is honest, and he knows the game. Just having him on the team made a difference."
ROUND 2: THE 'GET OUT' GAME
The Eagles came into the second-round matchup not really worried about a Whale Branch opponent who was substantially better than Cross. Part of that was the belief Miller had in the Eagles' offensive production, which had the help of Jordan Kind, who led the Eagles with 18 points in the opening-round win against Cross.
"I really trust y'all offensively," Miller assured the team pregame. "I really do. Y'all have done a good job adapting to what teams give you. There's no reason for me to lose that trust tonight."
Miller and the coaches felt that Whale Branch would be the toughest opponent the Eagles would get on the way back to the state championship. He wasn't shy about his feelings toward Whale Branch, especially taking into consideration comments made by the Warriors' head coach Antuawn Wade earlier in the week.
"Hey guys, I hate to say this, but if we handle business here tonight," Miler started. "Believe it or not, this is the biggest game. This is the biggest game, getting to Tuesday. This is the biggest game because they feel we got in their way. They think they deserve it. They fired their coach last year for him. They ain't ready. They ain't ready. Play lights out. Play fast, move with your feet and your body. Cut they ass off. Suffocate them, show them that Lowcountry defense is bubble gum. This real defense here. I can cut that tension with a knife over there. I don't like the fact you (Wade) disrespected me earlier in the week, and then you say you will sell out our gym. Get outta here. Get outta here! You understand what I'm saying?"
The Eagles definitely understood what Miller wanted to see happen. It was a game filled with emotions, and those emotions got the best of the Eagles early with multiple players ending up in some foul trouble. A few picked up four fouls, but no player fouled out before the final horn sounded. As a result, another one of Miller's "plugs" stepped up and had an impact. Kaleb Rolle played substantial minutes after not touching the floor in the first game.
The Eagles led 40-32 at the halftime break and went on to pull out a 78-65 victory. It wasn't easy, as the Eagles had to stave off a few runs made by the Warriors.
"I will tell you this, y'all ain't proved me no lie yet," Miller said to the team postgame. "Y'all are very mentally tough. I'm not gonna knock nobody else we'll see but that boy over there; they've got some good defense. That was some good defense. They played hard, they believed in their system, and they played to the end but the problem was, they ain't used to no Eagles. We've got a helluva system ourselves."
The main reason the Eagles were able to withstand the runs made by Whale Branch was the play of Ernie Calloway, who was one of the Eagles in foul trouble for most of the contest. Despite collecting a few fouls, Calloway played hard and quite literally took over the game by going on a 6-0 run paired with great defensive plays in the third quarter to help build a cushion.
Calloway was one of the Eagles' more standout characters. There was a certain presence he carried. You always knew he was in the room, whether it be from him donning a pair of shades or cracking a joke. Calloway, forever the jokester, was also all about his business when the time came. His growth was the biggest thing Miller appreciated seeing.
"Ernie Callaway, man, he could be a son of mine. But Ernie used to get in my craw sometimes," Miller explained. "When I look at him, I see a lot of me. I look at him and say that was me at one time. A little different scenario. He's a father and a (darn) good one. I told him, 'You want to be your child's hero. You're the first person he'll ever know.' He grew into that role.
"He really just knows what to do in a lot of situations. He's a man-child, and I grew to just love Ernie to death. He made our team go. He literally took over the Whale Branch game. If he didn't do that, we probably wouldn't be here. Ernie really was a blessing to have and probably the one I'll miss the most."
ROUND 3: THE '3RD GEAR' GAME
The Burke Bulldogs came into Summerton for the last home game the Eagles would have. Beforehand, the team was pretty confident in its ability to advance to Florence for the lower state title game. Even so, Miller wanted to make sure his team was extra focused while preparing.
"Without this game right here, whatever we plan ain't possible," Miller claimed. "Without this one, this is the most important one, nothing else matters. Tonight, No. 15, he's a decent ball handler, their best ball handler. No. 5, he's all right, No. 23, he's all right. Behind them, I put a dot dot dot (pointing at the white board) because it don't matter whoever's left. Take the half court from them and stay focused on the goal at hand. Saturday is the goal at hand, and the following Saturday is the dream at hand!
"I see their nervous energy, but y'all have got to take it to them…Use what we've got in our toolbox. They don't want to play you. I see that. They don't want to play. When they walked in, they thought they did. They are trying to hype themselves up. Finish the deal tonight, gentlemen. Finish the deal, and you've got two days' rest after tonight. It don't even matter who we play after tonight. It's ours, it's just waiting for us to pick it up.
"Do you agree?"
"Yes, sir," the team replied.
"Do you agree?"
"Lock in; nothing else matters tonight," Miller continued. "I've waited 300 something days to get back to this. They were telling us we weren't going to make it back last year. They told us we ain't got a chance this year. Every time I look up and we have a chance to be back, we're back. Every time I look around, we're back. Show them they ain't ready. Guards, be ready, everybody on that sideline, be ready."
"Y'all got it?"
"We locked in?"
The Eagles jumped out to a quick 17-6 lead at the end of the first quarter and took a 25-15 lead into the break. Miller wasn't upset with the team but wanted to see more. He wanted to make sure the Bulldogs couldn't hang around.
"The only thing that was happening out there is what we allowed them to do," Miller stated. "Let's get it, guys, we're better than this. Now, I'm not mad, it's playoff basketball. They want to go. It's our job to deny them. It's our job. We're always talking about racing, right? Third gear is the catch gear. That's the gear you ride the hardest. That's the gear that throws you into fourth and fifth. Fourth and fifth is just cruising. This right here is gonna be the game to propel us… Now let's go get this thing, man."
The Eagles came out in the second half determined to crush any hope Burke had of coming back. Scott's Branch ended up leading 41-23 in the late stages of the third quarter before ultimately going on to win 62-49.
Gibson led the team with 22 points. Tyler Kind finished with 14 points, and Calloway added 10 points. There was a great amount of joy as the Eagles celebrated finishing off their playoff home stand along with the realization of another trip to Florence. Miller gave the guys a few days off and noted they were banged up after a few physical contests.
"The beautiful thing about this thing, fellas, is we're going back home," Miller said to his team post-game. "Florence is a city, but that's our home. We've made it back there, and it's no distractions. We know what we've got to do to clinch this thing. We've been down this road before; to win it, you've got to do something you've never been before. Y'all are playing cognizant. Y'all are playing with a strategy and with your tools. We aren't playing lone wolf like we used to do…You broke their will.
"Get your bodies together; y'all are banged up. This was a great game. I love y'all to death. We're epic. We're doing something epic right now. This ain't never been done before at Scott's Branch High School!"
LOWER STATE FINAL: THE 'COME OUT WITH THAT DOG' GAME
The team held a very informal shootaround at the school before hopping on the bus for the ride to Florence for the matchup with Estill. Their personalities were on display. The Kind twins, along with Lawson, were the first three players in the gym getting up shots. Tyler was belting out the chorus from SZA's hit record "Snooze," and Jordan was joking with assistant coaches Derrick Hastie and Randall State between jumpers.
Johnson and Jimmy Weeks were the next players to arrive.
Weeks, a senior, was another one of Miller's "plugs." He served as the team's sixth man and had qualities Miller felt were better than some of the team's stars.
"Jimmy probably has the best vision on the basketball team," Miller explained. "Better than Tyler and better than RJ, Jimmy is able to make decisive decisions at full speed. Jimmy, he's a little undersized, but he's tough. Any time a cage rattles, Jimmy will be the first one to unlock it. I will miss his personality and his uncanny comments."
A little after 11, the rest of the players arrived. The vibes were pretty loose. The players were joking among themselves along with the cheerleaders who had also arrived.
Everyone was waiting on Miller. Once he arrived, a switch flipped, and you can tell the guys were ready for the business trip at hand.
The Eagles got right to work in the opening minutes against Estill. A 9-1 run started things off, and the Eagles led 13-7 after one quarter. Early in the second quarter, Scott's Branch went on another run, this one propelling them to a 21-9 lead. From there, Scott's Branch looked to have total control of the game. The Eagles led 30-17 at halftime and could sense they were on the verge of something special.
"Sixteen minutes," Miller told the team at the break. "Y'all 16 minutes from going back to the state title game. Sixteen minutes, that ain't even long as our warmups. If you care about that, if that dog's in you, here it's gon' show. You understand? I've been dreaming about this moment since last season. This is ours; let's finish it. Come out with that dog. Come out with that dog!"
The Eagles did just that.
Senior big man Emorej Stephenson had one of the most impactful performances for Scott's Branch in the win. He was an intimidating force down low in defense, challenging shots and snagging boards. Stephenson also contributed heavily on the offensive end, even though he scored just two points. His ability to draw fouls helped to foul out Estill's star big man Kavon Chisolm.
For Stephenson, it was a chance for him to just "play his role." It was a bright spot in a run that he'll always value.
"We planned on going back to state before the season started," Stephenson explained. "We were working hard all preseason. I texted RJ before the season started that we were going back; we just had to work for it. During the season, I had a lot of ups and downs, I was on the team, got kicked off the team and then came back on the team.
Miller explained how proud he was of Stephenson to be able to be in the position to finish out the season and be an impactful player during the playoff run.
"Emorej, he's a kid who missed a month of basketball. There was a home situation going on. And my thing is, if the home ain't right, you know, you can't be right here. He was a kid who hadn't finished a sports season; something always happened.
"I had a real hard conversation with him. He came back and he helped us. The second Johnsonville game, they had no answer for him because they didn't remember him. Then he helped us throughout the playoffs. That was major."
The players were more open to talking after this game. Senior Javier Hill had been nursing an injury but was eager to make his voice heard.
"Y'all know what's going on with us, man," Hill stated. "1A No. 1. We're going back. We just gon' leave it like that!"
Hill was another one of Miller's plugs. He played sparingly but always provided great insight to Miller throughout games.
"Javier Hill, I've seen that kid really change in the last 18 months," Miller explained. "This basketball season he ain't grumble, he just wanted to be a part. He was like a coach on the sideline. He gave me some advice several times. So I found myself looking for him. I've watched him mature, and he brought some muscle. We talk about Ernie, but he was a muscle guy, too. He had a strong personality, too; that's a senior we're going to miss."
Speaking with The Item before the trip to Florence, Miller joked that we needed to prepare for one more trip with the Eagles.
"We're making one more trip," Miller said with a big smile on his face. "I ain't gonna say it gets old, because it never gets old; it's always different. For us to win this championship, we've got to do something we never did. We already had to do something that we never did before, winning a fourth lower state (championship). We accomplished that, but we want a different result next week. That's what my mind is focused on. I'm happy for the kids, but it's a flash happy. I'm thinking hard right now about how we can go out here and do something we ain't did in about 20 some years, and that's win a state title."
FINAL HOME PRACTICE
Things started with a 3-on-2 to 2-on-1 transition drill. They were having fun with it, but Gibson urged the guys to take things seriously.
Miller arrived and belted out, "Let's make this fun; it's the last one." The team proceeded to do just that. A full-court layup drill quickly turned into a dunk contest for those who had the ability to convert a slam. The players took turns trying to posterize each other and convert high-difficulty layups. Then the team got to working on its game plan. A key wrinkle featured Stephenson being inserted to the starting five due to Christ Church having a 6'11" big man.
The team went on to hold a final scrimmage in their home gym, with Gibson and Tyler Kind choosing teams. Kind's team would go on to win 43-38, and the team concluded the afternoon with a celebratory cookout.
Tyler Kind is one of two players to be on the team every season during the four-year run. The point guard's brand of toughness and overall IQ is something that Miller highlighted as his most redeeming qualities.
"I watched Tyler grow up," Miller said. "I watched Tyler get knocked out on the football field against East Clarendon about three years ago. Every year after that, he's had some kind of injury. But this past year, I saw different toughness about him. I'm talking tough. Tyler has the most competitive spirit. He's one of the top competitors I've ever coached. He just had a will to never fail. I think Tyler made RJ the player he is. Tyler is gonna be very successful because he has a knack for figuring things out whenever he hits a wall. He has great critical thinking skills. That's why I'm going to miss him."
TEAM MEETING BEFORE THE FINAL
The Eagles' last pregame team meeting took place right after breakfast at their hotel before departing to the USC-Aiken Convocation Center. Miller took the time to acknowledge everyone on the team. He also took the time to reflect on the journey and further inspire the Eagles to tackle the task at hand.
"Today was already written," Miller said. "It was already written for me to lead you, and now you have to believe this."
STATE FINAL: THE 'CHARACTER BUILDING' GAME
The Eagles faced an uphill battle against the Cavs early, dealing with foul trouble and a lack of consistent offense. Those would be the two areas that plagued the Eagles throughout the first half, but Scott's Branch still had a chance, trailing 24-16 at the half.
"We have to do something we never did before," Miller reiterated to the team at the half. "We can't sit back and wait or pout. We have to stay in the game and play. They should've had three fouls against you, RJ. Keep attacking. We're down by eight, and that was their best punch? We're still in this."
The scoring woes continued, and the officiating got even messier, and the Eagles spent the whole second half making runs but weren't able to get the deficit lower than seven before ultimately losing 63-41.
Miller addressed the locker room with a tone of conviction as he assured the team what happened during the game was due to factors out of their control. He made sure to remind them of the history they had made and let them know that the loss was going to be a learning experience and was going to lead to something greater in life.
Gibson finished the game with a team-high 19 points. His last game in an Eagles jersey displayed the type of talent he possesses and the will he has to do what he can to try to will his team to wins.
"This season was one of my best overall, we were more focused and like-minded," Gibson explained. "We all grew up in the same classes together so this year feels a little more like the end. This year really wasn't a responsibility change. I, with the help of others always filled the captain roll on the team, there were just a few minor things like helping mature younger players, years prior I was in those same shoes as the younger player.
"I feel like I left a great mark at Scott's Branch, just always being myself and being that role model for younger kids while showing them they could do the same thing or even more than I did if they put in the time and commitment on the court or field and in school. My situation is very unique because I never heard anyone that has been to the state championship all four varsity years but just couldn't win. It motivates me to work harder, it teaches me that the game doesn't define me, and it prepares me for future challenges in life.I will miss the love and support that comes from Scott's Branch and the community the most. It's nothing like Scott's Branch!"
"You don't replace RJ Gibson. When I came down here, that was one of the first kids I heard about. He was a little dude then. We would do basketball camps, and he would be doing AAU. I used to question it, but then I met the family. They are a close-knitted family. When he went to AAU, they went to AAU. That was their vacation, that's how it was explained to me. I stopped saying anything about it because it was family. But he would design his schedule around our schedule.
"He's got a good basketball IQ. You truly don't replace RJ. Somebody else will come, and they just won't be be him. I can see it now, I'll just be waiting someone to take over a game like RJ. Him and the rest of the seniors left this program in good shape."
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
With seven players from this roster graduating, the Eagles find themselves with a rebuild on the horizon.
Miller is appreciative of what this current group has done for the program but is also looking forward to the rebuild. Miller believes that tradition "never graduates" and will be developing new plugs as his current ones continue on their path to becoming starters.
Chris Barringer and Jordan Kind will be leading this team next year along with the other returners.
They may not be the ones to deliver the state title. Miller admitted that it may take time for the program to get back to the place it currently stands but truly believes that a state title will be won again in Summerton.
"I'm going to get us one," Miller said.
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