John Smith is not headed to his first rodeo today; specifically Class A Upper State championship basketball games.
Smith and his Great Falls Red Devils have a second meeting in four years with the Landum Cardinals at Greenville's Bi-Lo Center, and to the winner will get a trip to the state championship game in Columbia.
Today's game will mark Smith's 18th trip to the Upper State game. His Red Devils (25-1) have won seven state championships, including last year's against Burke.
For Smith, it doesn't get old and every trip is a new adventure. And top to bottom, he recently said, this season's team is one of the strongest he's put on the floor in his 43 years at Great Falls. He has 889 wins, most ever by a boys' coach in South Carolina.
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The Red Devils got to today's game with a 73-71, last-second win at Calhoun County on Tuesday. Great Falls had just what it wanted for the final shot: the ball in the hands of Class A's Co-Player of the Year, Xavier Holmes.
But rather than take the shot while being surrounded by Saints, Holmes dished the ball to guard Shaq Simpson, who banked the ball off the glass and through the hoop for the game-winner.
"For five years, I have had to sit and watch Calhoun County beat us," Simpson said. "All the times that we lost to them were on neutral courts; so for us to ... beat them on their home court, that makes up for it."
Calhoun County had won five of the past six meetings. Smith said it was about as big a win as his team has had, especially in matchups with the Saints.
"It's far and between when a Calhoun County lost one at home," Smith said. "But I'm not going to research it. I'm just glad we got out of there with a win."
Landrum (24-3) will present a different set of problems. Calhoun County and Great Falls like to press off the dribble and run the floor. Landrum is deliberate. It plays a half-court game and plays zone defenses designed to stop opponents from getting the ball inside the perimeter.
Smith said Landrum plays "big ball," likes to throw the ball over opponents while looking for a good shot. The Cardinals advanced with an 87-78 win against McCormick on Tuesday, so they can score points on their half-court set.
"They have three 3-point shooters and go 6-foot-6, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-3 inside," Smith said. "And their guards are in the 5-foot-11, 6-foot range. They are just like us in they have a solid starting five.
"Three of their starters score in double figures. The other two average around eight points. They have only one player from the last time we played them, a 58-41 win in the 2009 Upper State game in Greenville."
Holmes is Great Falls' leader, averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds. Landrum's top player - 6-6 junior forward Daniel Bridges - enrolled in public school this season after being home-schooled.
Bridges averages 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. The Cardinals have scorched the nets for 172 3-pointers, led by Mark Wilson's 52.