AIKEN -- Sean Mims wouldn't stop crying, not when his fallen teammates tried to comfort him with hugs, not when his North Augusta friends tried quick pep talks, not when consoling parents and well-wishers tried patting him on the back with words of "Great season."
He sat miserably in his folding chair, pulling his sweaty jersey above his redding eyes, trying to hide the pain of Tuesday's 59-45 loss to Lexington in the Upper State Class AAAA championship game.
North Augusta's stupendous season crashed with a dynamic thud, a team with 25 consecutive wins rendered hopeless over 32 minutes of basketball.
The sudden affliction to ensconce Mims, Tyrone Walker, Matt Collins and the remaining North Augusta torchbearers on this blurry night proved to be the worst sports malady one can think of, March Sadness.
March Sadness is a crippling disease, one that spreads quickly throughout favored basketball teams setting the loftiest of expectations. Hephzibah's girls team knows all about it, so does Lincolnton's football team.
"Only one team will be happy when the season's over," North Augusta coach Ron McKie said. "And it's not going to be us."
For three months, it appeared that North Augusta would be that team joyously celebrating the school's first South Carolina state title. After dropping two games in a Thanksgiving tournament, the Jackets outclassed the next 25 opponents, many by laughable margins.
They had Walker, a 6-foot-6 force with Buckwheat hair, and the area's best player. When Walker tired of scoring, they had Mims to take over as he would drive effortlessly to the rim. The Jackets had depth, they had size, they had coaching, they had those ever-present fans with never-ending vocal chords.
And today, they have a completed season, one game removed from glory, the previous three months of milestones now meaningless without the ultimate trophy.
"We had a good year, but " Walker summed up with a look of rage and despair in his eyes. "We should have gone one game further. I'm frustrated right now, but there's nothing I can do."
Lexington, the Jackets' vanquishers, looked terrified before the opening tip. But when the Wildcats started by making two triples and a layup to the Jackets four missed jumpers and a turnover, you could sense the tightness from the local kids in the white jerseys.
Walker found two blue jerseys wherever he roamed, as Lexington did what no other team could, and that was to make the Jackets' best player a non-factor. He picked up two ticky-tack fouls in the first quarter, and his only point came from a late second quarter free-throw.
The strategy worked wonders. McKie knew his team couldn't survive by the jump shot alone, so to feed on a steady diet would create starvation sooner or later.
North Augusta never led, and when Walker picked up his fourth foul midway through the third quarter, Lexington attacked the gaping middle, scoring layups or winding up shooting free-throws.
More tightness from North Augusta. Shots forced, open looks avoided, one pass too many. The season's pressure, the 25-game winning streak, the first trip to Columbia, all seemed like an anchor on Jackets' slumping shoulders.
With the score 44-36, Walker picked up his fifth foul, and the sirens blazed. When the inconsistent officials called Jeff Battle for an over-the-back foul, McKie's rage exploded as he charged to mid-court, the needed catharsis costing him a technical foul.
At the most aggravating moment, the coach cracked, too.
"I'm going to go in there and tell them that one game shouldn't make the season go away," McKie said.
One-game seasons can create the most pain, no matter how many pats on the back you receive.
Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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