When North Augusta’s girls’ basketball team hit the Columbia city limits Saturday, Yellow Jacket players started recognizing landmarks. They knew where to go when they arrived at Colonial Life Arena and stepped off the bus. And when the 4A girls’ basketball state championship game against South Pointe started, they again knew exactly what to do.
Comfort with the state championship experience was crucial for the Yellow Jackets during their 50-39 win over the Stallions.
“From the beginning we were a lot more composed and I think that helped us in the long run,” said North Augusta’s Mya Burns, who had 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Championship experience is something the Stallions could only gain the hard way. They were a disappointed bunch afterward, knowing that they only lost by 11 points to the now three-time defending state champs, despite one of their worst performances of the season. South Pointe shot 31 percent from the floor, made just 2-of-11 shots from 3 and turned the ball over 24 times. It made for a postgame stat sheet that Stallion coaches could barely stomach.
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“Hats off to North Augusta, they’re a good team. Once they kind of got in their groove, it was hard to stop them,” said South Pointe coach Stephanie Butler-Graham. “But I’m proud of my kids. We were down by 16 at one point and they fought back.”
North Augusta hadn’t lost to a South Carolina team since 2016. And that was apparent during a first half in which South Pointe looked flustered, couldn’t control the pace of the game and missed numerous shots around and under the rim. Basically, everything it did while cruising past Westwood in the Upper State championship.
Butler-Graham’s team made just 4-of-24 shots and turned the ball over 14 times in the first half. From the middle part of the first quarter to the middle part of the second, it was obvious which team had played in Colonial Life Arena before.
“I don’t care what you say, it does have a bearing,” said North Augusta coach Al Young. “I just think their inexperience coming here the first time, and certainly we played some good defense, I think all of that hampered them.”
The Yellow Jackets cleaned their defensive backboard aggressively, preventing the Stallions from second chances on their numerous misses. And North Augusta (24-2) scored from all parts of the court, hitting eight free throws and two 3s to build a 28-12 lead. A 12-3 burst in the second quarter gave the Yellow Jackets plenty of breathing room headed into the second half.
South Pointe tried to spice things up early in the third quarter. The Stallions forced a five-second call turnover, then Scarlett Gilmore drained a 3 to cut the Yellow Jacket lead to 41-30. But the champs scored eight of the next 11 points and pulled away for good.
North Augusta looked completely at home playing in front of the huge crowd in Colonial Life Arena, a building that hosts so much (Gamecocks) women’s basketball excellence. Young, the former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back who was dressed in all black, rarely raised his voice the whole game. North Augusta’s fans rarely raised their collective voice, until 1:29 was left in the game when they started chanting “three-peat! Three-peat! Three-peat!”
South Pointe outscored the Yellow Jackets in both the third and fourth quarters, but the damage had already been inflicted.
Young was right alongside former Yellow Jackets coach Crystal Cummings when she took over North Augusta’s program about eight years ago. They built it from a team that hovered around .500 into the juggernaut it is now. And Young said that a group of girls on their first team set the tone.
“When kids come in our program, they’re willing to do the work,” said Young. “I appreciate the girls we had the first year. We had some girls that were committed and we were able to push them extremely hard.”
Butler-Graham had a team like that this season in Rock Hill. Can South Pointe build on the best season in its history?
The team loses just two seniors, albeit important ones in Gilmore and Sierra McCullough, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds Saturday, from a group that tied the school record for single season wins (26) and reached the school’s first basketball state final.
But North Augusta only loses three seniors. The Yellow Jackets aren’t going anywhere.
“We both are still young,” said Butler-Graham. “And it could be a matchup again. I’m excited about the group I’ve got coming back. You can’t replace Scarlett or Sierra, but that could be a challenge for some of those young kids that say, ‘hey, I want those minutes, I want to contribute to the team.’
“I think they didn’t like how they felt after this game, they didn’t like how they felt on the sideline. So that’ll be enough motivation.”