For a team ranked behind 16 other programs in the 32-team bracket, third-seeded Aiken has surprised more than a few critics over the past 10 days.
“Teams take a look at us on film or in person, and they think they can have their way with us,” coach Tony Harrell said. “We are undersized. But these kids have so much heart and so much desire to win that they catch other teams by surprise.”
Fort Dorchester, a No. 2 seed, faced the Hornets at home but fell by 11 in the first round of the state playoffs. Aiken then eliminated Spring Valley with an 18-point win and followed up with a state quarterfinals road victory against No. 1 seed Wando.
The upset over Wando, just the second loss for the Warriors this season, came despite Aiken’s 15-3 deficit after one quarter.
“We had some nerves early. We were playing in a very hostile gym. It was real loud,” Harrell said. “We had to adjust to their size. They were one of the biggest teams we’d seen all year.”
The games only get bigger this weekend, when Aiken will play for a Lower State title tonight.
With a win, the Hornets will advance to the state championship a week later. Standing in Aiken’s way is region rival Lexington, which handed the Hornets a pair of 26-point losses during the regular season.
Aiken hasn’t lost since the 71-45 blowout defeat to Lexington on its home court three weeks ago. Senior DeVante Butler, the Hornets’ leading scorer, said his team has grown stronger as a unit since that loss.
“It’s us against everybody else, and we know that,” he said. “That’s what’s brought us together. We know we’re not getting help from anybody else. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”
Butler, whose reputation as a scorer drew more and more double teams as the season went on, hasn’t had to face those extra obstacles alone. Aiken’s journey through the playoffs has seen various Hornets break out for big nights, including junior Shawn Moore, who turned in a game-high 26 points in the win over Wando.
Moore said before the playoffs started he was hoping to get another shot at Lexington.
“The first two games we played against them I don’t think I showed up,” he said. “I have to make sure to play my game. They’ve got that intimidation, but that’s worn off now that we’ve played them already.”
Aiken will once again enter this matchup as the heavy underdog. But the fact that the Hornets aren’t supposed to win hasn’t stopped them yet.
“Right now we’re playing our best basketball of the season,” Harrell said. “And we fully believe that we have a chance to beat them. Just keep it close, get us into the fourth quarter and anything can happen.”