Carvers Bay is one victory away from playing for the Class A boys basketball title.
But Saturday's Lower State title game against Whale Branch isn't going to be any walk in the park. The Warriors spent much of the year ranked as the top team in the state and have only three losses all season.
Beaufort Gazette/Hilton Head Island Packet reporter Stephen Fastenau has been covering Whale Branch all season. He'll also be at Saturday's game.
He took some time to answer a few questions on Whale Branch's rise toward the top and keys to the game.
QUESTION: With Whale Branch having to play their biggest game of the season to date without Michael and Simeon Middleton, how much different will the Warriors look when they take the court against Carvers Bay?
ANSWER: The biggest difference you'll see is in coach Linc Lyles' substitution pattern. Lyles likes to swap personnel throughout the game until about the fourth quarter, when he'll ride with his best guys. Without Mike and Simeon, those options are limited. Whale Branch is a deep team, but the Middletons are two of their most versatile players. It hurts, for sure. Simeon could get to the basket or pull up from 15 feet and score. Michael is a bigger guy who can drive to the basket from the top of the key or knock down a deep 3. As a tribute to the Warriors' depth: I think Simeon is their best player. And he wasn't their all-state selection. That'd be senior Dee Delaney, a hustle guy who will hit the offensive boards for baskets and can run like nobody else in transition. If Carvers Bay can keep him off the glass and limit the Warriors run out, it should win.
Q: Carvers Bay won its third-round game against Johnsonville with high-pressure, very physical defense. What kind of response will Whale Branch have, and how many reliable players does it have to bring the ball up the court?
A: This will be interesting, because C.E. Murray pressed late in Tuesday's game with some success. Whale Branch does have depth at guard, and even though Simeon was probably their calmest player on the court, they should have the handle the make adjustments. Point guard Terrell Hazell is solid, and three or four other guys are capable of bringing the ball up the floor. What you'll see if Carvers Bay keeps the pressure on is a smaller Whale Branch lineup. And the Warriors don't mind a fast game. As a side note -- Lyles was in awe of Johnsonville when talking about them earlier this year. And Carvers Bay ran the Flashes by 20? Sounds like trouble.
Q: Which Warriors' player is the wild card for Saturday's game? Is there an under-the-radar guy who could be the difference for Linc Lyles' team?
A: Yes, although I think the word is slipping out about freshman guard Justin Rhode. He's a pure shooter, in the Stephen Curry mold. Rhode broke his foot in December and missed five weeks after leading the team in scoring through six games. He scored 18 points in the first half of a second-round win over Timmonsville. That was a Friday, when the Middletons were out of the lineup. I expect Carvers Bay will know to have a hand in his face. Forward Charles Jiles is another good shooter who can sneak into double digits quickly.
Q; What exactly has Whale Branch done to emerge so early as a player on the Class A hoops scene?
A: You can point to a few things. The program has had coaching consistency. Lyles has been there all three seasons and is a great coach, an intense guy who has the attention of his players. He's built the team with some patience. The Middletons played junior varsity last year, believe it or not, because they didn't have a lot of experience playing organized basketball. A core group of key contributors -- Delaney, Jiles and post player Jay Abney come to mind -- have been in the system a while. And it doesn't hurt to have a little luck, as when a player like Rhode moves to your area before the school year or when two brothers (the Middletons) choose Whale Branch Early College High School for the academics, when they live in the shadow of Beaufort High School.