BLACKVILLE, S.C. - The seniors for Blackville-Hilda will play like they have never won a state basketball championship.
In actuality, when the Lady Hawks step on Carolina Coliseum court at noon today to face Scott's Branch, they will be gunning for their third straight Class A state title.
All five senior starters were vital parts of the school's previous title teams.
Keisha Jones and Tamika Thomas will start in their third championship game, while Tiffany Hagood and Katrina Coleman will be making their second start. Shakenie Donaldson backed up last year's only senior Tormesha Haynes.
"This is a big game, especially for us seniors," said Jones, who is averaging 12 points per game in title-game play.
"We want to go out on top," Hagood said. "It was good winning the ones before, but this is the big one. We have to get this one. We're hungry for it."
The Lady Hawks head into the championship game as the hottest team in postseason play, riding a 14-game winning streak in the state playoffs - the longest for any team in all classifications.
A victory would give the Lady Hawks their second three-peat title run in school history under coach Farrell Zissette. Blackville-Hilda captured titles in 1986-88 behind the play of Direne Thomas.
Zissette shares his seniors' sense of urgency in repeating the feat.
"You don't like to be greedy, but we don't want a runner-up trophy," he said. "I don't want to coach good girls. I want my girls to be great. We have a chance to do something special and we can't go out there playing around."
Blackville-Hilda has hardly "played around" this year, claiming the Region 4-A championship before knocking off its first four playoff opponents by an average margin of 22 points.
The Lady Hawks (26-1) have been almost untouchable all season. The one slip was a loss to region rival Estill.
The school's championship run started against the Lady Gators three years ago.
Behind Tameka Cave and Pam Calhoun, the Lady Hawks snapped a seven-game skid against Estill with a 66-40 rout in the third round, derailing the two-time defending state champs en route to earning a 60-39 victory over Mount Pleasant in the state championship.
"That was the season for us right there, being able to beat them," Zissette said. "Before that, they had our number. That broke the wall for us. The state championship was the second biggest game that year."
With only one senior returning from that team, Blackville-Hilda wasn't the early favorite to repeat last season. After a first-round blowout of McCormick, the Lady Hawks needed late rallies to stay alive, winning its final four playoff games by a total of just 15 points.
The Lady Hawks' suspense ride went down to the buzzer against McBee in the finals. McBee sophomore Emily Roberts hit a half court shot at the buzzer, but after minutes of debate, the shot was waved off and the Lady Hawks held on for the 47-45 victory.
"We don't want it like that this season," said Thomas, who scored 11 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the championship game a year ago. "We don't want buzzer-beaters and discussions between the referees before we win."
Thomas played injured much of the second half after being elbowed in the kidney area in the second quarter.
The senior, who pulled down 13 rebounds in the title game as a sophomore, had a kidney removed when she was 4 years old and had played without a scare until the elbow shot.
"It was painful, but I tried to fight through it," she said. "It's not every day you play in the state finals."
Hagood, who tore anterior collateral ligaments in both knees, leaving her sidelined during the playoffs her freshman and sophomore seasons, needs just eight points to reach 1,000 for her career.
Jones and Hagood earned all-state honors this season. Jones, a 1,000-point scorer in three seasons, is averaging 15.6 points per game, 8.3 assists and 6.2 steals while Hagood pumps in 12.5 points a contest, 6.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and rips 3.3 steals.
Scott's Branch has been no less convincing in its playoff journey, upending its first four opponents by 16 points a game. Falling just one game shy of meeting Blackville-Hilda in the finals a year ago, Scott's Branch came back to reach the finals behind all-state performers Kimberly Julious and Sharon Ballard.
"I know hardly anything about them," Jones said. "I'm just going to get out there and play my game. We will go lay it all on the court like we always do."
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