YORK -- "That was a set play," Torrell Priest said, showcasing a mouthful of teeth through a wide smile.
Might want to consider moving that one to the front of the playbook.
Priest drained five 3-pointers in the first quarter Friday, spurring Fort Mill to a big lead and what would become a hard-fought 93-79 win over York in the Region 3-AAAA opener for each team. Priest ended up with what he said was a career-high -- 33 points -- as the Yellow Jackets stayed undefeated.
"In practice, I've been slacking," Priest said, trying to find an answer for his hot night. "I had to step my game up."
He did it quickly. Fort Mill (8-0, 1-0 Region 3-AAAA) won the tip and point guard Peyton Barker saw Priest camped on the left wing. He fired it to him and Priest leaped, releasing in a form so fluid it looked like it came from a training manual.
There was no need to quit what was obviously working, so Barker kept throwing to Priest. The guard responded with three more from long range, combining with six other Fort Mill points for an 18-6 lead with less than three minutes gone.
"That guy was on fire," York coach Kendall McCarter said, shaking his head. "He wasn't a 3-point threat on the scouting report."
In danger of getting run out of their own gym, the Cougars (4-3, 0-1) buckled down and went to work. Getting the ball to their own star, OB Love, York began to put the ball in the hole and clawed back in the game.
Still, it wasn't easy. Fort Mill, the defending state champ with a reputation for unselfishness, kept finding ways to score. The Jackets would exploit York's press with a seam for an easy layup; get the ball inside to man-mountain Chalmers Rogers or get post-up presence from Garrett Copeland.
Plus, there was Priest, hitting two more 3-pointers in the first half and finishing with 22 over the first two quarters.
"We shot the lights out in the first half," Fort Mill coach Bailey Jackson said. "We haven't had an offensive half like that in quite a while."
Cruising into the locker room with a 52-32 lead, Fort Mill felt great. York felt terrible -- but not defeated.
"The first thing coach said was, 'You're not going to come back from 20 points down against Fort Mill in one quarter,'" said Love, who finished with his own 33-point night, two points off his believed career-high. "'Just cut it to half.'"
McCarter's words stuck. The Cougars flew out of the locker room and began running their game plan -- namely, Fort Mill had too many options to score, so keep the ball out of their grasp, always get a hand in their face and make your shots.
It worked. Fort Mill was scoring but York was equaling the output, and as the contact fouls mounted and the Jackets' turnovers rose with them, York sliced the deficit from 20 to 15 to 11.
"I guess it's human nature to relax a little bit with a 20-point lead," Jackson said.
Only down 69-56 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Jackets' offense bogging, York swiped a ball and streaked downcourt. Fort Mill's Mike Kozlowski stuck with the play and retrieved the ball with his own steal.
Kozlowski realized he had little to no chance of scoring with a defender draped on him, doggedly staying between him and the hoop. So he flipped the ball behind his back, drawing oooohs from the crowd, as Priest took the pass and laid it in.
Priest anchored the final Fort Mill charge, scoring 10 points in the final frame to balance another super night from Rogers, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. Love, who scored 11 points in the third to fuel the Cougars' charge, had to be content with a solid effort and the knowledge his team posted 47 points in the second half and forced 29 turnovers against the state's preseason No. 1 team.
"We just made mental mistakes," Love said. "We'd make some good plays but then weren't getting through them."
"You can't give up 40 points in a half and expect to win many games," Jackson said, realizing the close call although Fort Mill never let its lead drop below 11.
Priest, the man of the hour, took his congratulations and walked out the door. With plenty more games on the horizon before the Jackets can attempt to repeat as state champs, he seemed to know one night wasn't going to make the season.
"We didn't have good defense in the second half," he admitted. "We need to keep pushing."