Ben Lee was at a loss for words following Tuesday’s basketball game. Who could blame him?
The River Bluff High School boys basketball coach tried to gain his composure after a tense and thrilling final few minutes in the Class 5A Lower State championship game against Dutch Fork.
The Gators pulled through for a 45-43 win over Dutch Fork in a game played at Lexington High School. River Bluff advances to Saturday’s state championship game to face Dorman, which defeated Riverside at the buzzer.
It’s River Bluff’s first state championship appearance in basketball, while Dorman will go for its fifth title in a row. The state title game will be 7:30 p.m. Saturday at USC Aiken.
“I am having a hard time putting sentences together. … My head is all abuzz, to be honest with you,” said Lee, who has been the only head coach in the eight years of the school. “My first year we won six games, the second year four games. For the administration to have patience with me and to get to this point, I don’t know what to say.”
River Bluff led 43-40 on Landon Stills’ basket with 1:47 left in the game. But Dutch Fork’s Houston Jones tied it with a step-back 3-pointer with 1:05 left.
The Gators hit a pair of free throws, one by Malachi Reeves, to lead to 45-43 with 5.5 seconds left.
The two teams exchanged timeouts, then Dutch Fork coach Bret Jones said he called for a play named “Winner” designed to get the ball to his son Houston Jones for a 3-pointer.
The Silver Foxes executed the play perfectly, and Jones was fouled shooting a 3-pointer with two seconds left. But the junior, normally about a 70% free-throw shooter, missed the first two attempts — and then the third on purpose — but Dutch Fork couldn’t get the rebound as time expired.
River Bluff then celebrated the school’s first Class 5A Lower State championship.
“I have known Houston since he was born,” Lee said. He and Bret Jones were standouts at Lexington and have coached with each other. “He is a killer out there and I was scared. I know he is going through a lot of emotions right now and I hate that. We will have another year to compete against him. But I am just so happy for my group.”
Bret Jones had his hand on his son’s shoulders as the two emerged from the Dutch Fork locker room after a lengthy postgame talk. The coach tried to put things in perspective for his son.
“I told him if it wasn’t for Houston we wouldn’t be in this spot,” Bret Jones said. “He was our best player all year and hit the shot to tie it up at 43. He is always the one who hits the big shot to get us over the hump. He has nothing to hang his head about.
“That is what sports is all about. You learn from adversity.”
Jones finished with a team-high 15 points and Octavius Smith added 13 off the bench for Dutch Fork.
All-state selection Myles Jenkins led River Bluff with 17 and Reeves added 15. The two are part of a senior-laden group that has helped the Gators get to this point.
Reeves’ season was cut short last year by injury. He and the rest of the seniors are savoring the moment and chance to play for a state title.
River Bluff won its first two playoff games on the road and played Tuesday’s game at a neutral site.
“This is just great for the program,” Reeves said. “Never got to go to a state championship. This has been a really fun road in the playoffs, especially in this hard time.”