Turning back up court after knocking down yet another 3-pointer, one had to wonder whether Socastee’s Andrew Gardner could believe what was going on.
“Oh my god!,” he yelled, just before accepting a few high-fives and a slap to the backside by Socastee boys basketball coach Derrick Hilton during a fourth-quarter timeout.
The Socastee junior scored 17 points — 12 of which came in the second half — keying his team to a 57-52 victory over rival Carolina Forest. With the victory, the Braves clinched a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons.
“This was the biggest game of the season. If we’d have lost this one we weren’t probably going to the playoffs,” Gardner said. “This is the probably the hardest the team has come (to play), and we shared the ball. This is probably the best game we played all year.”
For moments in the first half, it didn’t seem that way.
Carolina Forest (9-13, 3-6 Region VI-5A) came out firing from distance, knocking down six 3-pointers in the first half. Of those, junior wingman Matt Beale knocked down half, playing a big role in the Panthers opening up a 24-14 advantage midway through the second period.
Feeling the game starting to get away a bit, Hilton called timeout in an effort to settle his team down — along with make a few adjustments to slow Carolina Forest down.
“My coach ended up looking at me and said we might have to look at making some adjustments,” Gardner said. “The first time we played them, they did not make that many (3-pointers). After they hit six in the first half … actually after they hit three or four, we knew we had to make some adjustments, try to get out to those guys and give them some pressure.”
While the Panthers would hit four more from deep range in the game, their avalanche of 3-pointers slowed to a flurry — allowing Socastee to finally settle in.
The catalyst of the Braves’ surge was Gardner, whose 3-pointer was the launching point for a 12-4 rally to end the first half. His hot play would continue in the final 16 minutes, stretching the floor — both for his shot and to get others involved.
While he certainly did his share of scoring, others did too. Among them was South Carolina signee Jason Cudd, who had 11 of his 17 points in the second half.
“The coaching staff has been telling (Cudd) that this is the last time he would be able to play against anyone this small,” Hilton said. “It’s the last time he’s going to get the chance to be a bully. So we want him to be a bully the rest of his career in high school, before he goes into the SEC.”
Having fully seized momentum, Socastee led 48-40 with a little more than three minutes remaining. With a bevy of fouls at its disposal, Carolina Forest forced the Braves to win the game at the free throw line — something it wasn’t able to do, keeping the door ajar for a potential Panther miracle.
Socastee (12-10, 4-5 Region VI-5A) missed seven free throws down the stretch. The Panthers weren’t able to capitalize, though, misfiring on five of their own.
According to Carolina Forest boys basketball coach Brian Brunson, that is the most disappointing thing.
“We just didn’t make free throws,” he said. “We had our chances, but we just didn’t make the most of them.”
A glimmer of hope remains for the Panthers to make the playoffs, with an at-large bid in the Lower State being handed to the first teams left out in Lower State regions V, VI and VII. Still, being unable to qualify for the state tournament outright left Brunson with quite the empty feeling.
“I mainly feel bad for the seniors,” he said. “The circumstances of this season. From (standout forward Duane Moss’ back injury) to other issues, it’s been that type of season for us.”
As for Socastee, the postseason awaits.
“I got an excited group of guys who came out here and left it all on the line tonight,” Hilton said. “They knew what we were playing for, trying to make sure we earned a spot in the playoffs. We pulled it off, guys are excited. I’m proud of the way they played and came out and tried to execute.”
SOC (57): Alex Collins 1, Tyler Rainer 3, Kendrell Generette 6, Nyjaye Foster 8, Aeneas Green 3, Elijah Lawson 2, Jason Cudd 17, Andrew Gardner 17
CF (52): Seth Brown 1, T’Jay Brunson 5, Richmond Collier 11, Marcus Hemingway 1, Matt Beale 13, Freddie Kane 2, Tariq Timmons 12, Jaylen Johnson 7.
3-pointers: SOC 6 (Foster 2, Green, Gardner 3), CF 10 (Brunson, Collier 2, Beale 4, Timmons, Johnson 2). Team fouls: SOC 18, CF 19. Fouled out: Timmons (CF), Green (SOC). Technical fouls: Generette (SOC).
Records: SOC 12-10 (4-5 Region VI-5A), CF 9-13 (3-6 Region VI-5A)