The road to the basketball state championship is well-known to the teams from Great Falls and Burke high schools.
But until this year, their journeys to Columbia have had more curves than just the routes to get there. They meet today at 1:30 p.m. in the University of South Carolina's Colonial Life Center.
Great Falls (24-2) is playing in its third straight Class A and 16th overall under coach John Smith. Burke (23-7) is making its third trip in four years under coach Earl Brown, but those were in Class AA before the Bulldogs moved down this season.
"When you looked at the teams that moved down this year, you had to expect Burke and Abbeville to be in the hunt before the season started,'' Smith said. "We beat Abbeville in the Upper State, so they were a good team at our level. And we are playing Burke for the championship.''
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That either team made it this far is a testament to their coaches. Both will say it takes good players to get this far. What's unique about this year's finalists is each team returned only one starter, 6-feet-5 centers.
Burke's is senior Fadol Brown, a banger who averages only 8.6 points, but is pulling down an impressive 11.8 rebounds per game.
Great Falls' is junior Xavier Holmes, who is scoring 17.1 points a game but has averaged 22 in the playoffs. He is second in rebounds behind Stevo Squirewell, with 9.4 per game. Holmes is more of a finesse player, a good passer who also averages 4.7 assists per outing.
But don't get the idea that the game will be decided on which center plays best. Great Falls has three other in double figures scoring: Squirewell (13.4), Shaq Simpson (10.9) And Ernest Talford (10.0).
Burke's double-figure scorers are John Ross (16.2), Solomon Dukes (10.3) and Craig Williams (10.1).
As the coaches pointed out, you don't make the state championship game with just one player.
"You don't ride in with three mules and a jackass if you make it this far,'' Brown said. "And we knew if we got to the state, Great Falls would likely be the team waiting for us. We graduated 90 percent of our defense and 80 percent of our offense, but we replaced that with players who wanted to succeed and here we are.''
Brown has coached Burke 26 years. Smith is in his 42nd season at Great Falls and is the state's all-time leader in career boys victories with 865.
Burke plays a more controlled game, mostly out of the half court set that allows the Bulldogs to work the ball around and take the best shot. The Bulldogs are averaging 67 points.
Great Falls is the opposite. Smith's Red Devils use the entire court, man-to man pressure that sets up its running game. The Red Devils average 69.2 points and have grabbed 308 steals.
"We can run if we have to,'' said Burke's Dukes, a 5-9 guard. "In football we played on both sides of the ball so it's hard to tire us out.''
Burke's only playoff opponent close to Great Falls' style was Estill in the third round. The Bulldogs won 61-57. Burke won its four playoff games by and average of 12 points. The Bulldogs have outscored their opponents 236-188.
Great Falls has been rolling, outscoring its opposition 281-182. The margin of victory has been 24.7 points.
But numbers mean squat as far as today's game goes. As usual, it will come down to which teams shoots best, which protects the ball better and which can avoid foul trouble. It's the same in all big games.
"This is my fourth time playing in a state championship, one in football, and I want to win one,'' Squirewell said. "I really like this team and think we are better than the one that got here last year.
"We have proved that working as a team is important, that you don't need a Dwayne Wade or a Chris Paul to win. We have more than one player who can score and we play good defense. That's why I like our chances.''