COLUMBIA - For Blackville-Hilda coach Farrell Zissette, Saturday's Class A girls state championship victory provided a sense of redemption.
The Lady Hawks earned their third straight state crown with a 72-63 victory over Scott's Branch at Carolina Coliseum.
Zissette lost only one senior from the squad that downed McBee 47-45 in the 2000 state title game. Yet, Blackville-Hilda failed to crack the top 10 in the preseason coaches' poll.
"Of course it was a motivator," said Zissette, who also led the Lady Hawks to a three-peat in 1986-88. "We used it to our favor. You want to jump up and down and get mad, but instead you go out and be the best you can."
The Lady Hawks (27-1) were led by a trio of seniors that has played on all three title teams. Keisha Jones poured in a game-high 24 points and dished out seven assists; Tamika Thomas scored 13 points and grabbed 16 rebounds; and Tiffany Hagood added 12 points while grabbing 14 boards.
"Even though we didn't have anything to prove, we felt like we did," said Hagood, a four-year starter and all-state performer. "We knew we would be back. This is the way to go out."
The Lady Hawks expected to reach the finals this season, but they didn't expect to walk away victorious without a fight from the Lady Eagles (23-5).
Holding tight to a three-point lead with 36 seconds remaining, Jones broke free and drove to the hole, finding Thomas underneath. Thomas scored on a layup and made one free throw after drawing the foul.
"I knew that if it was close under two minutes, we would be OK," Zissette said. "For the simple reason that we've been here before. I had the ball in the hands of seniors who knew how to win here, who had won many games on the line."
The Lady Hawks got off to a slow start as the Lower State champs jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead.
The Lady Hawks settled down and rolled off on a 10-2 run to tie the game. They outscored the Lady Eagles 22-8 in the second period to take a 36-24 halftime lead.
The Lady Hawks built a 14-point second-half lead when Scott's Branch coach Randy White implemented a full-court press aimed at stopping Jones.
"We didn't do a good job on her at all," White said. "She's an all-state player. We wanted the ball out of her hands. And it worked for a while."
White's own pair of all-state players went on a tear to bring the Lady Eagles to within striking distance. Kim Junious and Sharon Ballard led a third-quarter charge that left Blackville-Hilda with only a four-point cushion entering the fourth quarter.
Junious pumped in a team-high 21 points, while Ballard put up 18. Senior forward Tinakia Johnson scored back-to-back layups to cut the Lady Hawks' lead to 57-55 with five minutes to play.
Scott's Branch took a serious hit when Johnson, who accounted for 16 points and 11 rebounds, fouled out. With Johnson on the bench and Jones blanketing Juious, the Lady Eagles were unable to gain any ground.
"We knew they were a quick team," said Jones, who scored in double figures in all three state championship games. "But we didn't want to leave here without a state title. It's something about winning it as a senior. It's even better than the other two."
Reach Patrick Green at (803) 648-1395.