Christ Church hadn’t been nip and tuck with an opponent since the Crescom Bank Holiday Invitational in Myrtle Beach over the holidays. In winning 18 straight games, the Cavaliers had been posting double-digit victories, usually 30- or 40-point margins.
Close games? Not so much. Close team. You bet.
Faced with a challenge for the first time in two months, the Cavaliers responded with a group effort that carried them to a 49-40 victory over Calhoun County in the Class A girls Upper State championship game today at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Christ Church (26-2) will play defending champion Latta in the state final at 11 a.m. next Saturday at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia.
The Cavaliers, who had won their previous three playoff games by at least 40 points apiece, trailed 14-11 after the first quarter and had two of their top inside players — Abbie Posta and Lawren Cook — pick up two fouls by midway through the first quarter.
Nonetheless, they managed with contributions from Paula Pieper and Kendal Kipper and rallied to take a 27-20 halftime lead.
“People were ready off the bench,” Christ Church coach Toni Leopard said. “Everybody’s played a lot of minutes all year, so I knew they would be ready.”
“We had stayed behind each other, and that was why we were able to stay in the game,” said Sarah Robinson, the team’s lone senior.
Christ Church Episcopal School coach Toni Leopard cheers after a call his made in favor of her team during the Upper State Basketball Class A Girls Championship game against Calhoun County High School at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Saturday. The final score was CCES 49, Calhoun County 40.
It also helped that, as usual, the Cavaliers had the best player on the floor, junior Shayla Bennett, who finished with 18 points. Her scoring was critical, but her passing and leadership were just as crucial.
With just seconds left in the half, Bennett dribbled the length of the floor, into the lane, around a defender and, though off-balanced, left a pass for Posta, who finished to give Christ Church a 27-20 lead at the break.
“She’s so strong with the ball,” Leopard said. “She’s so talented. Great basketball IQ.”
“Usually we’re up,” Bennett said. “Being behind, I just told the girls, ‘We can’t settle for jump shots. They’re fouling a lot and the refs are calling them and they’re in the bonus, so we have to keep attacking and get them in foul trouble.’
“We work on our free throws all the time in practice, so we just had to knock them down.”
Christ Church wound up scoring 17 points from the free-throw line; Bennett made 8 of 10. Calhoun County made five free throws.
“Shayla has been humongous for us,” said Robinson. “Not only is she obviously an amazing player, but we all go off of her. Her passing, the way she plays, the energy she plays with, we all try to rise to that. She encourages us all, and if we make a bad play, she’s always behind us.”
Still, the Cavaliers had work to do.
“It was weird coming out at halftime, and it being close,” Robinson said. “It was like, ‘We’ve got to stay at a hundred percent the rest of the half,’ and we did that.”
“It’s always zero to zero in the second half,” said Bennett, “so we just had to stay behind each other and stay tough, mentally and physically.”
They had to, because Calhoun County (22-4) wasn’t slowing down. The Saints, in the Upper State final for the first time in 40 years, were trying to hang in with their best player, senior Brianna Charley, battling foul trouble.
Charley sat out half the second quarter, half the third quarter and then fouled out with 6:38 remaining. She finished with 12 points.
Yet Calhoun County trailed 45-39 with 2:36 to go. But Bailey Breazeale grabbed an offensive rebound and scored and then added another basket with 47 seconds left to seal the victory for Christ Church.
Breazeale, especially big on the offensive boards the entire game for the Cavaliers, scored seven of her 13 points in the final quarter. Cook, likewise, gave Christ Church a big lift inside.
“Lawren Cook, I felt like she was being hammered in there,” said Leopard. “She’s so strong, and she did a great job in there, too, for a freshman.”
Leopard, in her third season as coach at Christ Church, has the team in the final for the first time since the Cavaliers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
They’re headed to another big stage, but Leopard said she knew that playing on one in December would help down the road.
“It had been since Christmas,” she said, “but going to that tournament in Myrtle Beach, it was the same kind of environment, same kind of arena, so I felt like they were confident. We were prepared and they handles themselves well. I’m super proud.”
“I’ve been with Coach Leopard since she’s been here, and we’ve never been this far,” said Robinson. “For my last year, for this all to come together, is just awesome.”
CLASS A GIRLS UPPER STATE FINAL
At Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Christ Church 49, Calhoun County 40
CHRIST CHURCH (49): Robinson 5, Bailey Breazeale 13, Shayla Bennett 18, Cook 4, Posta 5, Pieper 4.
CALHOUN COUNTY (40): Britt. Charley 4, M. Gilford 6, White 7, Williams 9, Brianna Charley 12, B. Gilford 2.
Half: Christ Church 27-20. Records: Christ Church 26-2, Calhoun County 22-4.