For the second time in as many years, the North Augusta Yellow Jackets will play for the South Carolina Upper State basketball championship. This time they are hoping for different results.
The Jackets face a familiar Region 3-AAAA foe -- the Lexington Eagles -- tonight at 7 at Aiken High School's gym. It's a fitting matchup, pitting the region's No. 1 and No. 2 teams in their third battle of the season.
The other semifinal game will be a rematch of last year with defending Lower State champ Socastee playing Lower Richland, which is ranked No. 20 nationally by USA Today.
The semifinal winners play Friday at 8:30 p.m., at Carolina Coliseum in Columbia.
The Jackets took both regular-season games -- 60-48 at Lexington and a close 46-43 victory in North Augusta which Lexington led until late in the game.
"They'll be real tough to beat three times, that's for sure," Jackets coach Ron McKie said. "They're a well-coached team and they're playing really well now."
So is North Augusta. The Jackets (25-2) go into tonight's game riding a 25-game win streak and boast one of the state's top players in 6-foot-6 senior Tyrone Walker.
But the Jackets, who haven't forgotten last year's 67-57 loss in the Upper State championship to eventual AAAA champion South Aiken, won't be content with just making it to the Final Four this season.
"Last year we were a little surprised and a bit happy to be there," McKie added. "This year we want more. We want to take it a step further."
Lexington is no stranger to these postseason accomplishments. The Eagles have played in four of the last five Upper State title games, taking home the champion's trophy in 1996.
Even Eagle coach Bailey Harris admits that this year wasn't supposed to be theirs to win. Lexington lost three starters from last year's team, but still managed to go 21-7 and finish second in the region with an 11-3 mark.
"This team was really inexperienced and didn't have a lot of expectations coming in," Harris said. "But I think tradition and pride carried us through."
Lexington is led by 6-foot junior point guard Benjamin Ryan, who averages 14 points and three assists a game. He is the younger brother of USC Aiken starting point guard Thomas Ryan.
Thomas Ryan played on the 1995 team that made it to the Upper State finals.
"Three of our starters' older brothers have played in these big games, so they understand the tradition," Harris said. "There's not a lot you can put your finger on with this team, except that they have outstanding character, keep their composure and don't get rattled."
The Eagles will be giving away a lot of inches to the taller Jackets. All-region performer Devin Liferidge is Lexington's tallest starter at 6-2. The senior has averaged 11 points and 7.5 rebounds against his tallercounterparts this season.
But he may need to muster up everything he has to contend with Walker, 6-4 Randy Brown and 6-4 Sean Mims down low.
Walker is coming off a complete domination of Rock Hill in the quarterfinals, pumping in 20 points and grabbing 24 rebounds in the 76-51 blowout. The Jackets used a balanced scoring attack and swarming defense to knock off the Bearcats.
"You can't stop them. You can only hope to slow them down," Harris said of North Augusta. "They can do everything. I can't find a weak part in their entire game."
North Augusta often has gone eight or nine deep on its bench. Even though Mims, a small forward, scored only eight points in the quarterfinal victory, the Jackets didn't miss a beat with unsung heroes like Jeff Battle and Anthony Hawthorne coming off the bench.
"Practices are good. The guys seem real focused and kind of quiet," McKie said. "What we did in the regular season doesn't help us now. I can tell they want to take that next step."
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