LAURENS -- Midway through Friday's second-round game of the Class AAAA playoffs, a group of Laurens students began chanting, "Where is Ivory?"
York lost a closer-than-it-looked 50-33 decision to the Lady Raiders, ending its season at 19-6 and sadly recalling the last time it entered the Laurens gym. That was back around the millennium, when superstar Ivory Latta led the Lady Cougars to a neutral-site playoff win over Seneca and eventually, the state championship.
Latta's determination, grit and refusal to lose was clearly evident in York's play.
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Unfortunately, her scoring was not.
"We just got a slow start," coach Paula Blackwell said, shaking her head. "(Laurens) got out and really played well in the first half.
"Our kids dug down and rallied, but we could never quite get over that hump."
Laurens (23-2) won its 18th straight and continued its quest for its fourth state championship in 11 years by handily winning the first quarter, 17-5. Although the Lady Cougars never gave up, cutting the lead to eight to seven to six, that initial cushion was enough for the Raiders to wear down York's offense and head to the third round.
That Laurens got its biggest boost from its own leader, Kiara Hammary, was just another slap in the Cougars' face. The Lady Raiders' version of Latta ended up sinking Latta's alma mater.
"I felt that, too," agreed Nardia Robbins, who led York with 12 points and grabbed five rebounds and two steals. "She must be their leader, because when she came back, the crowd went crazy."
York came out firing after halftime, scoring the first nine points and climbing back into the game, down 28-19. Laurens extended the advantage to 10 and then Hammary drove into the lane, getting a shot shoved back in her face and crumpling to the ground.
Howling and clutching her right ankle, Hammary was helped off by trainers with no weight on her leg. York quickly used the absence to its advantage, cutting the lead to six.
But as shot after shot rimmed out and the clock ticked toward the fourth quarter, the Lady Cougars' chances diminished. Sure enough, the double doors at the end of the gym opened and Hammary came running back onto the floor, drawing an ovation from the crowd and sighs of relief from the Raiders.
Hammary immediately grabbed a rebound and Laurens scored seven quick points to go up 13. York again cut it to six but was forced to take hurried shots, which the Raiders turned into the buckets they needed for a comfortable win.
York left with a harsh 10-for-22 performance from the free throw line, a mystery since the Cougars have generally been very good from the stripe this year. That, plus Laurens' opening run, plus Hammary's return -- four boards, a steal and five fourth-quarter points -- all added up to a loss.
Robbins, one of four seniors along with Nicole Anderson, Keshia Thacker and Christian Cannon, was naturally not as chipper as usual but credited her teammates' performances over the past four years. It hurt to lose and hurt even more to realize what might have been, but overall it was a pleasant experience playing basketball at York.
"I just feel like I've never been on a team with this much potential," Robbins said. "This is going to be really hard to give up ... I'm going to miss this."
Blackwell, who guided her team through a fine season despite injuries to Robbins and Anderson, realized it was a good year. Not great, but good -- a season that proved the Cougars could handle adversity.
"We hung in there tonight, just like we did all year," Blackwell said. "I just kept thinking, 'If we'd have played like that in the first half, we'd be heading for the third round.'"
LAURENS 50, YORK 33
York -- Gina Patton 3, Nardia Robbins 12, Tikierra Anderson 9, Keshia Thacker 1, Erika Shannon 4, Nicole Anderson 4
Laurens -- Shakara Smith 5, Ali Langford 7, Brittany Cook 3, Dee Boyce 5, Leah Moore 11, Shonda Burnside 8, Kiara Hammary 11
York 5 5 14 9 -- 33
Laurens 17 9 11 13 -- 50
3-pointers -- York 1 (Patton), Laurens 3 (Moore 2, Boyce). Team fouls -- York 17, Laurens 16. Fouled out -- Burnside (L)
Records: York 19-6; Laurens 23-2.