COLUMBIA -- For the fourth consecutive season, Great Falls and Calhoun County matched up in the Class A playoffs.
For the fourth consecutive season, Great Falls lost.
The Saints entered the game in dynasty mode, looking to increase their winning streak to 76 games. Despite playing well through the first two quarters, Great Falls succumbed to Calhoun County's defensive pressure, falling 69-49.
With a trip to Clemson for the Upper State championship on the line, two of the best coaches in South Carolina high school history faced off on a neutral court at Richland Northeast High School.
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Great Falls' John Smith has more wins than any other coach in state history, while former USC great Zam Fredrick has put together one of the all-time streaks, winning 76 straight and looking for his third consecutive state championship.
The packed gym saw a great effort from Great Falls early, but like the Saints do to so many teams, Calhoun County wore down the Red Devils and ran away with an easy win.
The Saints averaged 106 points in their first two playoff wins, so Smith looked to slow down the game as much as possible to create a low scoring half-court game. Smith's strategy worked through the first half.
Calhoun County opened the scoring with a quick basket from Donte Rumph, but the Red Devils responded with seven consecutive points and built a quick five-point lead. Great Falls kept the Saints off balance by switching from man-to-man to zone defense, and for a while, took Calhoun County (27-0) out of its game.
Late in the first quarter, Shamier Jeffery buried a deep 3-pointer, giving the Saints a one-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Great Falls (23-4) hung tough, trailing just 19-17 after two free throws by Elisten Buchanan, forcing Calhoun County to call a timeout. The Saints came out of the 30-seconds rested by scoring six quick points.
The game remained in striking distance for Great Falls, when Calhoun County hit back-to-back 3-pointers with 3:06 left in the third quarter. The latter was a wild bank shot that put the Saints ahead 11 and came in the midst of a12-3 run.
The deficit caused the Red Devils to press, but Calhoun had little trouble breaking the defense and played right into its strengths.
Calhoun forced Great Falls into 23 turnovers, nearly unheard of from a Smith-coached team.
As if it wasn't hard enough to beat a team as talented as Calhoun, Great Falls battled foul trouble for much of the second half.
Senior Jeremy Simpson struggled in his final game, picking up his third foul early. Smith took Region 3-A's top scorer out of the game for a while, but as the Saints' lead increased, he let Simpson re-enter.
The guard picked up his fourth foul on defense, then fouled out just seconds later after retaliating to a bump from Jeffery.
Simpson was out with just under a minute remaining in the third, effectively ending any chance for a Red Devils rally with their top shooter sitting on the bench. Simpson finished with just four points.
With Simpson out, Calhoun built a 27-point lead before the Red Devils ended the game on an 8-2 run to make the score look a little more respectable.
Great Falls had excellent effort from Buchanan, who led the Devils with 13 points, and a dozen rebounds while Desmar Anderson finished with 12 points, all in the second half.
Smith could only compliment his opponent.
"Zam has built one heck of a program over there," said Smith. "We stuck with our game plan for much of the first half, but Calhoun County is so talented it was difficult for our kids to respond after they scored a couple quick baskets.
"We had a rough night shooting the ball, but there is no doubt that Calhoun County had everything to do with that. We had a great opportunity tonight, but you almost have to play a perfect game to pull of a win against them. We played hard, but Calhoun County is just a great basketball team."
Despite the loss, Great Falls ended the season as Region 3-A champion and with 23 wins. The loss stung, but there's little doubt the Devils will be back in contention next season.
The good news for Great Falls is when the South Carolina High School League realigns next season, Calhoun County will move to the lower state bracket. Hopefully for the Red Devils, the next time they meet the Saints will be in Columbia with a state title on the line.
"It's raining hard now, but there is a rainbow," said Smith when reminded of the realignment. "Maybe someone will beat them by then."