The Loris boys basketball team was the last remaining undefeated squad in South Carolina entering the postseason.
The Lions had little issue keeping it that way in their playoff opener.
Coach Adrain Grady’s squad breezed to 71-49 victory over Brookland-Cayce at home Tuesday. The performance was about as dominant as most of Loris’ victories this year. And once again, it was a multi-faceted effort that led to another blowout.
Travis Walters scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. Jahrique Isaiah scored 15 and added seven assists, and Derrick Grissett scored 12 points.
“We come out soft at times. Then we come out at half and that’s how we wrap it up, get big leads on a team,” said Isaiah, a junior point guard. “Just lock it in.”
That was evident in several parts of Wednesday’s game, but maybe no more than in the production of Brookland-Cayce standout Dominique Perry, a Class 3A All-State selection. After scoring 14 first-half points, he was held to just four in the second half. During that stretch, the Lions turned a contentious game into one in which the starters were able to spend the final few minutes on the bench preparing mentally for the second round.
The win moved Loris to 18-0, an unblemished record that with it brings added pressure for each addition to the streak. Every step closer to the Class 3A state championship game the Lions get, it becomes more and more difficult for this team to simply play one contest at a time. Each victory is another reminder that so far, the bugs that jump up and bite even the best teams from time to time have yet to come.
Not one off night.
Not one game where sickness or injuries depleted the roster.
Not one matchup where an opponent went off at just the right time.
Grady never preached perfection at any point this season. But so far, his team has been pretty darn close.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
It’s been five years since a boys basketball team in South Carolina completed a perfect season.
In 2012-2013, Irmo and coach Tim Whipple were 29-0, capping off the historic run with a Class 4A state title.
The closest anyone has come since was Southside’s one-loss season en route to a Class 3A championship last year.
To think of how rare even Loris’ undefeated run through the regular season was this year, take into consideration 425 South Carolina High School League boys and girls teams suited up this year; 98.8 percent of them did not go undefeated in the regular season.
Not even the best coaches can keep those facts from creeping into the conversation.
“We don’t look at in totality. We hope we can win this one game. That helps our mindset,” Grady said. “We try not to look at the big picture. But when we got to seven or eight in the region, it popped into our head that we could do it.”
This the first time post-segregation that Loris put together an undefeated regular season. Heck, it had been more than 30 years since the Lions won an outright region championship (they did share two along the way), something they did this season when they earned it by a three-game margin. Prior to last season, it had been more than a decade since the Lions won a playoff game.
So, yes, this is new territory.
Fans of other schools could poke holes in the current Loris narrative. The Lions didn’t play in any high-profile tournaments over the holidays. Outside of a pair of games against North Myrtle Beach, Loris didn’t face any schools from larger classifications. Its five other non-region games were played against teams from smaller classes.
Maybe just looking at the more evenly matched region schedules would prove Loris’ 10-0 run there was much more average. Not so much.
Between boys and girls basketball and all five classifications, just 24 schools statewide were undefeated in the most important portion of the regular season. That’s less than six percent.
Still think Loris didn’t accomplish something?
Getting so many moving parts to come together in harmony isn’t easy. And there’s a good chance any other coach couldn’t have gotten this to work like it has.
Grady is frequently known more for his football prowess than his abilities on the hardwood.
He’s helped Loris football to some of their better seasons in school history in recent seasons as Jamie Snider’s defensive coordinator. Before that, he was a standout defensive lineman at Coastal Carolina, where he earned Big South All-First Team Defense honors in his final season and All-Second Team honors in the previous three.
Grady, however, is as much of a juggler as he is a coach. Labeling him as a “football guy” isn’t accurate.
While a student at North Brunswick (N.C.) High School, he was an all-conference basketball selection, helped the team to a conference championship and holds the record for most rebounds in school history.
“My family was big on competing,” Grady said. “I wasn’t allowed to just come home and sit around. I had to do something. I didn’t start playing basketball until later in life. I was always a football guy. But I did baseball and track, too.”
His coaching career has mimicked the anti-specialization approach of his youth.
After beginning his coaching career as an assistant football coach at Carolina Forest, he eventually moved over to Loris during the 2008-2009 school year. Since then, he’s served as the head coach for track and field, wrestling and basketball. He’s also been a football mainstay under Snider – the man who recruited him to play at Coastal in 2002.
Flash forward to 2013, and it was Snider who recommended Grady for the boys basketball job. Grady transitioned from wrestling, taking over a hoops program that had won seven combined games in the previous two seasons and hadn’t had a winning record in seven.
The first three seasons under Grady were more of the same, with the Lions winning no more than eight games. And then last winter, Loris made a major leap forward. Walters, Antron Smith, Grissett and Isaiah started to play well together. Loris won 15 games and finished second in the region. It won a playoff game before falling in the to Ridgeland-Hardeeville in the second round.
Coming into this year, with Smith the only major departure, Loris knew it could again be pretty good.
Walters went off. He nearly doubled his scoring average to more than 18 points per game while also snagging about 14 rebounds per game. Late last week, he was named the region’s Player of the Year, with Isaiah finishing as the runner up. Sunday, both of them were named to the Class 3A All-State squad.
“It’s not a one-person team,” Grady said. “It’s not the Travis show. Travis is more of a scrapper. He gets loose balls, rebounds. We’ve got kids who have roles. We’ve got some kids who probably won’t take a shot all game.”
They also have a number of players who find ways to contribute in the most noticeable ways.
Isaiah (11.8 points, 7.1 assists) and Grissett (12.6 points, 5.9 rebounds) picked up their games. Levon Stevenson, who averaged a little more than four points per game as a junior, negated most of the scoring slack created by Smith’s graduation. Kevon Drayton (8.1 points, 9.8 rebounds) added a boost of his own.
Add that all up, and Loris was dominating most categories each night out – the most important being the one in win column. Grady’s squad had two of its first 18 games decided by five points. And in region play, all but one of the team’s 10 victories came via double digits.
“Everybody has to maintain the process,” Isaiah said. “We have to maintain as a team. We have this one goal.”
MAKING IT COUNT
There’s a reason those “18-1” New England Patriots T-shirts and social media memes from a few years back spread like wildfire.
Outsiders like to tag the best teams as overrated and when those teams fall short of winning it all, it’s easier to make fun of them than to appreciate what was accomplished along the way. Surely, any opponent Loris faces from here on – including Friday’s second-round opponent, Manning – is going to use the Lions’ undefeated record as motivation.
As if there was any doubt, the team has already proved it won’t overlook any opponent. It clinched the region championship with two games to spare; instead of hitting cruise control, it went out and beat the next two opponent by 21 points each.
Wherever that fire came from, it will be necessary now more than ever.
Loris isn’t simply playing basketball opponents anymore. It is fighting history and odds and the potential for distractions. The Lions are still the undefeated Lions, the label sticking with them until what will be a heart-breaking loss, whether it comes this year or next.
The streak itself becomes an opponent of sorts. And only one team in the state is still forced to deal with it.
Loris isn’t ready to settle for what has been. It wants the whole thing.
“We came this far,” Walters said. “We can’t come this far and not win.”