As the errant shot bounced away, the Hillcrest players and coaches began a bounce of their own – one of jubilation near midcourt. The Rams shook off a few anxious minutes at the start, played toe-to-toe with defending state champion Irmo and then hung on to beat the Yellow Jackets 54-52 in the Class AAAA Upper State final Friday night at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Hillcrest (25-4) will play Wando in the state final at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. The Rams, who took a 53-51 lead on Darius White’s basket with 1:07 remaining, had a 53-52 advantage when R.J. Cain stepped to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 9.8 seconds left. Cain banked in the first shot but missed the second, and Irmo rebounded. The Yellow Jackets’ Devontae Shuler wound up with a 3-point attempt from the right wing at the buzzer, but the shot was off. “I was just praying it wouldn‘t go in,” White said. “We beat Irmo, and we’re finally over the hump. We can go to state and try to win a championship.” “It feels good. I can’t lie,” said Hillcrest coach Reggie Choplin. “I feel like we’ve been knocking on the door for a while, and I’m proud of these kids. They just kept hanging in there.” Irmo (27-2), which beat Hillcrest in last year’s Upper State final on the way to the state title, scored the first seven points of the game. “In the beginning we had some jitters, but after the first couple minutes, we kind of slowed down,” said White, who scored 15 points. “We knew what we were going to do, we just had to man up and do it. Everything started clicking for us.” Shaw, in particular, was in a groove. He scored 20 points, including five 3-pointers. “Last year, I kind of struggled from the 3-point line here,” Shaw said, “and I just had a good game here tonight.” Shaw scored 14 points in the first half, which ended with Hillcrest ahead 37-32. Jevante Gross, who led Irmo with 16 points, converted a 3-point play to start the third quarter, and neither team led by more than three points the rest of the game. Hillcrest will play in the final for the first time since losing to Irmo in 1995. “It means a lot,” Shaw said. “We’ve been trying to do it for the past couple years, trying to win one for the community and everyone else that’s on our side. We just want to go down there and compete and bring the ring home.”
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