CAROLINA FOREST — Mario Edwards hit a crucial 3-pointer with the game on the line and the South Carolina Warriors overcame the toughest opponent they had seen in months, edging the Jersey Express 89-85 on Sunday to reach the American Basketball Association’s Final Four.
With his team trailing by a point in the game’s final minute, Edwards – a former standout at Coastal Carolina – drained a 3-pointer from the corner with 19 seconds left to put the Warriors ahead for good.
“I wasn’t hitting a lot of shots at the end, but my teammates believed in me,” Edwards said. “They told me to keep shooting, and I shot it just like I shot all the other ones, and it went in.”
Jon Pack, another former Chanticleer, hit a pair of foul shots in the game’s final seconds to ice the win, which sends the Warriors to the ABA’s Final Four, which begins Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
“You play 48 minutes. That’s the whole deal,” Warriors coach John Kefalas said. “You get some breaks, you don’t get some breaks, but the bottom line is you play through it all.”
The Warriors (30-1) led by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter, but the Express (Hackettstown, N.J.) wiped away the advantage with a 16-0 run over the next 3:00 to take an 80-76 lead with 3:09 to play in the game.
Former Marshall player Shaq Johnson had a pair of dunks over the next two minutes, one to tie the score at 80 and the other to put South Carolina ahead 84-83 with 1:13 to play.
Johnson finished with a team-high 23 points and Don Hughes had 20. Pack had another double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Edwards finished with 15 points on a 5-for-17 shooting effort.
“It’s the playoffs now, it’s the Elite 8. Every team is good,” Edwards said. “We probably haven’t had a four-point win all season. … We’re going to play much better teams and we’ve go to pick it up a little bit, but we’re glad to get out of here with a win tonight.”
Almin Hodzic scored 17 of his team-best 23 points in the second half for Jersey, and Ja’Shon Mixon added 22 points for the Express. Jamal Webb had 17 points and Devon Young had 13.
The Warriors found themselves in unfamiliar territory early on, shooting just 33.3 percent from the field in the first quarter, then watching as the Express (11-4) opened the second quarter with a 13-0 run to stretch to open up a 29-19 lead with 8:21 left in the half.
But South Carolina had an answer of it’s own as Johnson entered the contest as part of a four-guard set to offset Jersey’s speed.
Johnson scored nine points – including a pull-up 3 in the face of a defender with seven seconds left in the second – during a 23-10 Warriors run that gave the home team a 42-39 lead at the break.
“Those guys are great basketball players,” Kefalas said. “With them in there it creates more speed and we can press better. With them in there we can run an open-type defense because they all can penetrate.”
Former Auburn player and Georgetown native Brendon Knox saw his first action late in the first quarter since breaking a bone in his right foot on Jan. 26.
Play in the Final Four begins on Thursday at the University of North Florida with games at 5 and 7 p.m. The Jacksonville Giants (29-1) and North Dallas Vandals (20-2), the top two teams in the ABA’s power rankings, received byes into the Final Four. South Carolina is ranked third. Either the San Francisco Rumble (15th, 10-5) or the Colorado Kings (8th, 15-3) will be the fourth squad.
The winners of Thursday’s games will play a best-of-three championship series. Game 1 of the series will be Saturday at 5 p.m., Game 2 will be Sunday at 5 p.m. and Game 3, if necessary, will be April 15 at 7 p.m.