Malia Rivers and the Lancaster Bruins came to get a ring and be crowned as the new queens of South Carolina high school basketball, and they weren't going to leave Columbia without a prefect coronation.
For the second game in a row, the Bruins came from behind in the fourth period – this time to win the state championship over Lakewood, 44-42.
Lancaster overcame a ten-point deficit by closing with a 14-2 run. Rivers had nine of the 14 points and Lancaster finished an unbeaten season at 27-0. The win gives the school its fourth girls state title and first since 1959.
The Bruins trailed 40-30 with 6:26 left when Alexis Williams fouled out.
Rivers took it upon herself to start driving to the basket and forcing the Gators to defend her or foul. The transfer from Central Pageland kept getting to the line and slowly chipping into the lead. Five times in a row she hit 1-of-2 from the line and finished 7-of-14. Rivers hadn't looked to score earlier in the game as shehad two points heading into the final quarter.
"I'm a leader on this team and we needed somebody to step up and get the team the win," Rivers said. "It feels so good."
The junior and Region 3-3A player of the year, who had a team-high 11 points, did not feel like hope was lost when the deficit was 10 points.
"To be honest with you I felt confident because I've got confidence in my team. They're a good group of girls and I love them to death. I can't describe how I feel right now."
One of those girls is Junior Hayden Thorne and never let it be said she doesn't have good timing. She had two big rebounds in the last two minutes and stuffed a shot by the Gators leader and the game's leading scorer Sonora Dengokl with 1:46 to go and the game tied at 42-42.
Thorne saved her best for last after a Rivers free throw put the Bruins up 43-42. After Thorne had rebounded a Gator miss with 33.6 to play and Lancaster leading, senior and coach Ronnie Robinson's daughter Kaela Robinson sank one of two free throws with 10.5 ticks remaining.
Dengokl, who led all scorers with 17, rebounded the second shot and put her head down, driving coast-to-coast to the basket. Waiting for her at the other end was Thorne, and she planted in front of Dengokl in plenty of time to draw the charge with 3.6 seconds left, sealing the deal and the Lancaster fans erupted. Rivers missed two foul shots with 0.6 left, but the Gators didn't have time for a shot. Thorne said the charge was a first.
"I saw the clock and I knew she was coming down the lane because that's what she did all game," Thorne said. "I just stepped up. That's the first charge I've ever taken and it's the best one. I'm pretty proud of it."
Talk about timing.
"I kept telling them we've got to take a charge," Coach Ronnie Robinson said. "We kept letting them drive to the basket and that's what we didn't want them to do. Hayden had the big one right there at the end."
The coach felt like the leader Rivers would step up.
"We just had to settle her down and once she got settled down it got better."
Robinson could finally feel comfortable talking about the elephant in the room, an unblemished record for an entire 27-game season.
"It's awesome," Robinson said. "It's unheard of."
Just like the Upper State championship against defending champion Dreher, the Bruins started the first and third periods slowly. Lakewood scored the first seven points and the first seven of the second half to lead 30-23. They had also tallied the final four points of the first half on two of Taja Randolph's three consecutive baskets to tie the game at 23-23 at the half. Lancaster got its first lead with 6:21 to go in the first half on a three by Amirah Steward.
Lancaster turned the ball over seven times in the third quarter to only three for the Gators as Lakewood built its lead. The Bruins turned the tables in the fourth, having a 4-3 turnovers-forced edge as the Gators seemed to sit on their lead a little too early.
"That's the way we played all year," Lakewood coach Frances Fields said. "It just didn't work out this time."
And the New Queens pounced and now they will get their rings.