CONWAY — At some point, all those close games were expected to finally catch up to the Conway basketball team.
Despite playing at home in the first round of the playoffs against a team missing key pieces, the Tigers fell 59-58 Wednesday to Aiken. It has now been 20 years since Conway won a playoff game.
“I never wanted to underestimate that team,” senior Reggie Bonner said. “I know they had some players suspended, but I didn’t want to take them lightly. I told them to take it seriously, take it like they’re a top seed. We wanted to stay tough. And we wanted to play smart the whole game. But execution is what got us.”
Conway led by as many as eight points – at the midway point of the fourth quarter – and while Bonner said he apologized to his team for missing a free throw with 11 seconds left that would have put his team up three points, coach Mike Hopkins said that wasn’t necessary.
Bonner, named earlier in the day as a member of the Class AAAA All-State team after transferring from Sumter prior to the school year, finished the night with 17 points. However, Aiken simply made more plays down the stretch.
None was bigger than the contested lay-up Hornets guard Ryan McKie made with 5.1 seconds left. He was fouled on the play and made the free throw to put Aiken up one.
Conway’s last-second attempt as a 3-point bucket fell short,
“I tried to preach throughout the year that you have to go for 32 minutes,” Hopkins said. “You can’t take any possessions off. You never know when it’s going to come down to the very end.”
That was something Conway was accustomed to this year. The Tigers played in five overtime games (winning four of them) and earned five of their six Region VI-AAAA victories by double-digit margins.
Aiken, an unlikely team to do so, made Conway pay for another close one. The Hornets played the game without top scorer Shawn Moore (24 points per game) and forward Stacy Toole. Both suspended for the playoff opener for their role in an on-court altercation last week in the team’s rivalry game against South Aiken.
Additionally, forward Dramel Coleman also played with his left hand heavily taped after suffering an injury toward the end of the regular season. Coleman finished with 12 points.
McKie and Conway senior Kahmil Cooper each had a game-high 19 points. Cooper connected on three 3-pointers during the game.
Aiken will move on to play Goose Creek Saturday in the second round of the playoffs. The No. 5 ranked Gators defeated Beaufort 63-38.
Conway will have to go back to the drawing board. The team will lose Bonner, Cooper and fellow seniors Jaquail Crosland and Malcolm Green. The four played key roles in the team’s second-place region finish.
It will now be up to the next crop of players to end what has been generation without postseason success. The last time the Tigers won a playoff game was in 1993-1994.
“The goal for us is that when you talk Region VI basketball, you think about Conway,” Hopkins said. “When we start getting to the playoffs on a consistent basis, I can start talking about being snake-bitten or whatever. But these guys, they can’t remember happened back at Christmas, much less what happened years and years ago.”
• AIKEN (59) – Ryan McKie 19, Dramel Coleman 12, Deon Hicks 9, Jaylen Croft 6, Jared Davis 5, Dominic Chaplin 4, Megae Hill 2, John Besson 2
• CONWAY (58) – Kahmil Cooper 19, Reggie Bonner 17, Malcolm Green 8, Christian Jeffords 5, Jalen Hennigan 5, Jaquail Crosland 3, Bryan Edwards 1
• 3-point goals: Aiken 4 (Croft 2, Davis, Hicks); Conway 5 (Cooper 3, Hennigan, Jeffords). Team fouls: Aiken 14, Conway 14. Fouled out: None. Technical fouls: None.
• Records: Aiken 17-8, Conway 17-8.
Contact IAN GUERIN at email@example.com.