There had been little time for Stephanie Butler-Graham to savor the moment.
Her South Pointe team had just won the 4A girls’ basketball Upper State championship and she was whisked across the court to a postgame radio interview with WRHI. On the way back to join her team in the locker room a pair of reporters grabbed a quick interview with her.
But standing there on a hockey rink covered by a basketball court, Butler-Graham found the words to explain what the moment meant.
“I’ve dreamt about it, I’ve dreamt about it,” she said. “For me personally, 25 years ago I played in the state championship. And we lost. Then I watched my team go back down and they won it the next year. For these kids, we talked about it all year and we felt like it was something we could do and they believed that we could do it.”
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The 2019 state championship game is Saturday. South Pointe faces North Augusta at 5:30 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia.
The Yellow Jackets (25-2) are currently the state’s preeminent 4A girls’ basketball program. They’ve lost to teams from Charlotte, Georgia and Florida in the last three years, but haven’t lost to a team from South Carolina during that span. North Augusta’s program is a combined 79-3 since the 2016 season ended, and has won the last two 4A state titles.
The Yellow Jackets have a different coach this year -- Al Young replaced Crystal Cummings, who led the Yellow Jackets the previous seven seasons -- and S.C. Gatorade player of the year Amari Young -- Al’s daughter and a huge part of North Augusta’s dominance in recent years -- graduated and now plays college ball at Old Dominion.
The Yellow Jackets are still a juggernaut. But South Pointe (26-4) scrimmaged them in Charlotte before the 2018-19 season started. And the Stallions won.
“Now we see what we’re up against, instead of hearing,” said Scarlett Gilmore, one of South Pointe’s two seniors. “It gives us a sense of who they are, how they play, stuff like that.”
North Augusta loves to push the pace, trapping opponents with its full-court defense. The Yellow Jackets don’t have any players taller than six feet, giving South Pointe one big advantage inside with its 6-foot-2 senior center, Sierra McCullough. She just picked up a scholarship offer from Charlotte this week, and was integral during the win over a very tall Westwood team last weekend.
“She’s our key,” said Butler-Graham. “Keep her on the floor, not pick up early fouls, and get her the ball. They don’t have a her.”
Saturday’s game will be South Pointe’s first girls’ basketball state final appearance. But Butler-Graham is not surprised that her team is in the state final. Not at all. Such was her confidence that she bought a suit especially for the state championship game back in November.
“I didn’t tell them about any of that. It was me just trying to get my mind together,” Butler-Graham said. “It’s different. It’s a Jacquard pattern...”
Butler-Graham loves fashion and caught many peoples’ eyes last Friday in the Upper State final with her snazzy red suit and black shirt combo. That outfit was special too. She wore it in the 2010 North Carolina state final while coaching Butler High School to a championship and had not worn it since.
“I needed some championship vibes,” she said.
Butler-Graham wrote three things on the whiteboard before the Stallions’ Upper State championship: play aggressive, play as a team, and win.
Playing as a team has been easy for this group, which has five players averaging between 9.5 and 11.6 points per game. South Pointe has a strong collective energy, which was evident during its Tuesday practice soundtracked by Cardi B’s rapping and Stallion coaches’ occasional shouts. The Stallions have cool-headed leadership in Gilmore and Jamia Blake, and the players genuinely get along with each other and their coaches. That’s not always the case in modern high school sports, with players transferring in and out, sometimes quaking team chemistry in the process.
“We all have the same goal and we all want to do whatever we have to to get that goal,” said junior Randi Neal. “So we just lift each other up, instead of going up and down. We just keep positive vibes and good energy.”
Three seasons ago, South Pointe won six games. Gilmore, who became the program’s first 1,000-point scorer earlier in the playoffs, has experienced the progression from floor mat to 26 wins and state championship contention.
“It’s almost like a relief,” she said. “To see it finally come together... it’s something to think about, yeah. Can’t get too excited now, still got stuff to do.”
“It’s like almost, but not quite yet, but it’s right there,” said Neal, grinning.
Even longtime coaches like Butler-Graham aren’t immune to those feelings.
Her team’s even keeled demeanor doesn’t match her fiery sideline displays, but they play hard just like she did when she was a back-court terror at Seneca High School. She still hasn’t watched the tape from her senior year state finals loss to Dreher. Leading the Butler Bulldogs to a North Carolina title in 2010 assuaged the hurt a bit.
Butler-Graham has told her players about the last game of her own high school career, the prick she still feels when thinking about it. She tells them, “you guys are more than equipped and I don’t want it to slip away from you because you didn’t play hard, or you didn’t give your all, or you were maybe having a selfish moment. Seize the moment.”
At the beginning of the season, Butler-Graham bought each of her players a Ring Pop, the colorful hard candy attached to a ring that slides on the finger for easy consumption. Butler-Graham wanted the Ring Pops to symbolize state championship rings, wanted her players to visualize the team’s ultimate goal.
The Ring Pops are still in their wrappers, not yet opened.