The Grind, presented by Bank of Clarendon: Sumter High's Keziyah Sanders flies under the radar during undefeated season


The Sumter High girls basketball team has been the pinnacle of success for the last half decade.

Back in 2021, they played for a state title with a few freshmen playing integral roles. Now, those freshmen are seniors and, after two lower state championship game appearances, are poised to make another deep run.

The Lady Gamecocks enter the postseason with a perfect record of 21-0, and one of the biggest reasons is the play of Keziyah Sanders.

The senior point guard doesn't always grab headlines. She's a classic pass-first point guard. Instead of pouring in buckets, she sets up a pair of all-state teammates in Kiara Croskey and Rickell Brown. Keziyah keeps the engine churning for the Lady Gamecocks, even if she doesn't always get the recognition she deserves.

"I just try to trust the process like (head coach Jeff Schaffer) always tells me to do because I have my own role on the team," Sanders said. "I know that everything isn't about scoring points, and I know that college coaches don't really look at scoring points. I just trust the process and do what I do and try not to change what to do. If he tells me I'm right, then I'm trusting him and knowing that I'm doing it right."


Keziyah has seen it all through four years of high school basketball.

Her freshman year was ravaged by COVID-19. The Lady Gamecocks missed a stretch of the season when the school district elected to pause athletics. They came back and had to sprint through region play just before the postseason, but they still made a run to the SCHSL 5A state championship game.

Even that wasn't a fairy-tale ending, as their opponents, Clover, had positive COVID tests, pushing the game back two weeks.

"I was just trying to take it a day at a time," Sanders said of a chaotic first season of varsity basketball. "We were all close with each other, so we were uplifting each other every day knowing that it wasn't over yet and we had something to prove.

"We were ready to play (when Clover tested positive). I think we were too ready. When we heard that, it brought us down. We didn't want to use that as an excuse, so we came out there and tried to act like it was the same time."

When the game was finally played, it was followed by a roller coaster of emotions.

The Lady Gamecocks controlled the game from the opening tip. Sumter High led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, but as the game wore on, Clover didn't go away. In fact, they closed the gap. The Lady Gamecocks managed just five points in the final four-and-a-half minutes as Clover charged back for a 40-38 win.

That loss left a lasting impact on Keziyah and the rest of the Lady Gamecocks. They still feel the weight of it as they prepare for this postseason run four years later.

"(Coach Schaffer) always says he wants 32 minutes, and we realized that means a lot. This year, we have to learn that we can't take nothing for granted," Sanders said of what she took away from that loss as a freshman. "Everyone is going to bring their A game just because of who we are. We can't let off, can't relax any time we're on the court. That's our goal every time we get on the court."

Keziyah's mother, Nichelle Wilson, had a simple message that still echoes when the game is mentioned.

"It does still come up," Nichelle said of the loss to Clover. "She still says, 'We could've had it.' I told her there would be other times and they will get it. This is their year."

In the two seasons since that championship loss, Sumter High made it to the lower state championship twice. Last year's appearance came without Kiara, who missed the season after tearing her ACL. Both times, the Lady Gamecocks fell short of their return, falling by four against Summerville before suffering a three-point loss to Stall a year ago. Those losses proved that nothing is guaranteed and lit a fire under Keziyah and the rest of the seniors.

"That's definitely on their minds. They talk about it a lot. I hear them in the locker room talking about trying to get the job done this year and finishing the deal," Jeff said. "I think it's a motivating force for all of them, but all the ones that were in that game and saw how close we were. And really, the last two lower state championship games, we lost one by three and another by four.

"As a coach, that's a great thing because the thing with high school kids is you're constantly trying to motivate them to play at their highest level possible, and with them being self-motivated, that's less of a burden on the coaching staff because they come in ready to play."


Keziyah had a lot on her plate last season with Kiara on the sidelines. The two guards used to be able to share point guard duties. When Kiara went down, Keziyah was the lone player to bring the ball up the court.

Sumter High had other guards, sure, but Keziyah was the one Jeff trusted to bring the ball up the court.

"It was unbelievable how much pressure we had to put on her. She played every minute of every game," the SHS head coach said. "I think she was averaging 29 or 31 minutes a game. The only time she came out is when she'd cramp up, and she's cramping up because she gave it everything she had for as long as she could. If we didn't have her last year running the show, we wouldn't have gotten to the lower state championship."

Nichelle was unbelievably impressed by her daughter, even if she was stressed out watching Keziyah play without a break.

"I was worried for her some nights, and I would be in a little frenzy because she was out there, and I'd wonder if she'd ever get a break," Nichelle said. "But I was super impressed by the work she's put in out there."

It was certainly taxing, but Keziyah just wanted to do what she could for her team.

"It was a lot of weight on my shoulders, but it was nothing I couldn't handle," she said. "I had to show him I could handle it. Just keeping my team on my back and trying to help my teammates."


Even though she never came off the court, Keziyah didn't get much recognition at the state-wide level. She was overlooked for the all-state team, partially because her job is to open the door for her teammates to score.

"Everybody holds points as the end all, be all. That's the first thing that everyone talks about with all these stats," Jeff said. "The second thing is that it becomes political. If you don't have the support of other people in your region and then the other regions supporting us like the lower state sticking together, you get outvoted; it's that simple. With those two things going on, that caused her to not get those nods that she probably deserves."

Does Keziyah miss the adoration? Of course. What high school kid loves being overlooked after hours upon hours of hard work? But one lesson from Nichelle rings in her ears when she gets frustrated.

"She gets a little bit bothered by it, but I tell her, 'Don't worry about it. They might not recognize it, but people see you. You will be acknowledged whether it's by them or someone else. When that attention comes, it'll be up from there,'" Nichelle said. "She's always talked about different things and the acknowledgements people have gotten over her because she doesn't score 30 points, but it's not about points only. Other players contribute in a different manner, and they should recognize all of that.

"I told her whatever God has for her will be for her. Don't worry, just stay the course. Pray about it, and stay the course."

Keziyah has also been overlooked in the recruiting process. While coaches can see past the scoring numbers to see the player she truly is, Keziyah's smaller stature at 5'5" is harder for some coaches to ignore.

"I just feel like height don't mean nothing; it's all about the heart," she said. "I'm here to bring anything to the table, and I don't think nobody can stop me."

Offers have started to flow in during the past few weeks. She most recently received an offer from Clinton and has been getting looks from South Carolina State. Jeff has told any coach who asks to look past Keziyah's height to see the player and person.

"She realizes for our team to be successful, she had to be selfless and do those things for her teammates. She's become a leader, too. I talk to the seniors a lot, but I see Keziyah a little more during the day, and we're always talking about, 'This is what we've got to do. I need you to do this to help things out from a leadership standpoint,' and she's just embraced all of that," Jeff said. "That's what I tell these college coaches that have been nibbling around the edges with some of my guards. You don't see her for her stats, it's the intangibles. She's a very good student; she's not going to have any problem academically. She's getting overlooked because of the size, and I think that's unfortunate because she plays much bigger than she is. As she gets more development down the road as a college player, she's going to be better at that role."


Keziyah continues to improve her game every season. As a senior, she's averaging 7.8 points, 4.1 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.8 rebounds per game. Where she's really taken a leap is taking care of the basketball.

"The biggest thing that I look at from a point guard is that assists-to-turnover ratio. Right now she's sitting at about 2.68 assists to turnover, and that's pretty special," Jeff said. "That means every time she does that, she's giving someone a basket. Whether it's an assist or a bucket, I count that the same way. She doesn't care about the points as much. She's the typical point guard. She's out there distributing the ball, when she gets a chance to knock down some jump shots she does, but the biggest thing is that she's gotten so much better at not turning the ball over, and that is a big part of the reason we're so successful right now."

With Kiara back in the fold, Keziyah can finally take a deep breath every once in a while during games. More importantly, the Lady Gamecocks can really spread the floor. Between Keziyah, Kiara, Rickell and eighth-grader Araina Ross, Sumter High had four players who can grab a rebound and go. It makes them so difficult to defend.

"Nobody can guard the four of us," Keziyah said. "They can come close to guarding three of us, but all four of us is like unstoppable. We've got to learn how to play together and feed off each other's energy. Having her back is like a relief on everybody and just works out perfectly.

"We had to learn to play with each other all over again, especially knowing there's four of us. We did pretty good with it, but we're still learning, and it'll get better."


On top of being a shrewd ball-carrier, Keziyah is lights out on defense. She's the point-man on defense, too, bringing a ton of intense pressure on the ball. She loves it.

"Knowing that I've got five seconds to stop the ball, that's nothing to me," Keziyah said. "If I make my (player) pick up the ball, then I've done my job."

Jeff loves the intensity she brings to that side of the ball.

"She's quick. She's got a lot of those quick-twitch muscles that give people fits when they're out there on the perimeter," Jeff said. "She's been really good at getting people to not go towards the basket. We really preached that this summer that if you're going to make someone drive, it's going to be away from the rim. She's gotten so much better at that. That makes the job of every one of her teammates that much easier because you're not concentrating on one person beating someone off the dribble every time they touch the ball."


For Keziyah, basketball is everything. Literally.

"It's basketball everything. Her room is basketball everything," Nichelle said. "Everything revolves around basketball. Basketball is life, that's what she says."

She has an intense work ethic, which is a requirement to play for the Lady Gamecocks, but it predates her time at Sumter High. When she was a sixth-grader getting her start in AAU with Sumter Splash, she was in the gym 24/7.

"My work ethic is way up there. Ever since I was little, I always wanted to go to the gym. When we had AAU tournaments, we lose, I'm in the gym; we win, I'm in the gym," Keziyah said. "Even if we don't have practice, I'm in the gym. I live in the gym. I love improving things that I need to work on."

Her love for the game is why she wants to make this final push for a state title. She won't be defined by their late playoff losses.

"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Keziyah said. "I didn't wanna rush it because I feel like everything happens for a reason. I feel like this year is our reason. We can show everyone that we've got something to prove and our losses don't mean nothing.

"We're ready, that's the main thing. We waited so long, we've been down for so long, so that's been pumping us up every time we get closer and closer. I just feel like we've got something to prove."

Nichelle can't wait to see what they do. The Lady Gamecocks got a first-round bye when there was only one at-large team in the lower state, so their playoff journey begins on Friday against the winner between Berkeley and Stall.

"I am anxious," Nichelle said. "I am so proud of all of the girls. Each one of them contributes in their own way. All of the seniors are outstanding; they're a great group. I'm so ready to see what they have in store for us."