2017-03-17 / Sports

Gaither reaches top of 4A mountain in first season at Lower Richland

Lower Richland players and cheerleaders celebrate following a 51-42 win over Wren in the 4A State Championship game Saturday, March 4. Lower Richland players and cheerleaders celebrate following a 51-42 win over Wren in the 4A State Championship game Saturday, March 4. It’s hard to imagine completing a better first year as a head coach than winning your team’s first state championship in more than a decade.

Such is the day-today life right now for Lower Richland boys’ basketball coach Caleb Gaither.

The Diamond Hornets’ coach is less than two weeks removed from winning the program’s first state championship since 1999.

The latest state championship just adds to the tradition of Lower Richland basketball, which has grown over the last 18 years.

“When I was younger, I always heard about Lower Richland and the good teams they had. Over the years I’ve heard about the tradition,” Gaither said. “I knew how the Hopkins community loved its basketball.

That’s the type of place I wanted to be, where everybody is passionate about basketball.”

Lower Richland head coach Caleb Gaither Lower Richland head coach Caleb Gaither Gaither took over for Mark Burnitz, who was let go after two seasons. The former Dorman assistant coach inherited a team with a lot of talent but had to clean up some bad habits on the court.

Another concern for Gaither was how the veteran team would receive another coach. For players like Ja’Cor Nelson and Daniel Tisdale, Gaither was their third coach during their high school career.

“That was one thing I was worried about,” Gaither said. “Coming to a school like this, it could have been easy, especially for the seniors, to say ‘who is this guy, what does he know?’ It was a big thing for them to put their trust in me.”

He frequently met with the players during the summer and early fall and began to build a relationship with his team.

Despite being in the region with an A.C. Flora team that had been to three straight state championship games, it didn’t dampen the expectations Gaither had for the Diamond Hornets.

“I didn’t want them to feel like second was okay,” Gaither said. “I’m just trying to get the guys to have a mindset of wanting to be the best year in and year out. Let’s not be content with being second and making the playoffs.”

Wins over Cardinal Newman in the Chick-fil-A Classic and the Martin Luther King Bash and a split in the regular season with A.C. Flora highlighted a 16-4 record and a No. 2 seed in the 4A playoffs.

Behind Tisdale, Nelson, Clyde Trapp Jr., Savion Townsend-Wilson, and Tevaughn Higgins, Lower Richland saved its best basketball for the playoffs.

After disposing of North Myrtle Beach 62-52, the Diamond Hornets turned up the defensive pressure.

Tisdale and Shakeer Tatum-McConner especially had big defensive performances in Lower Richland’s 57-36 win at Lakewood in the second round.

The Diamond Hornets allowed opponents just 39.3 points per game during their last four games of the season.

“Our guys hang their hats on defense,” Gaither said. “ I tell them ‘Anyone can score, but what will make you that special team is when you can put the ball in the basket and stop the other team as well. In order to be special and be a championship caliber team, you have to put it together on both ends of the floor.’ Once they understood that philosophy it made us that much better.”

Following a 46-43 win over Wilson in the 4A Lower State Championship game in Florence, the Diamond Hornets advanced to the State Championship game at the Colonial Life Arena to face the Wren Hurricanes.

Gaither’s message to his team was to be patient on both offense and defense. That message was put to the test when the Hurricanes jumped out to a 24-6 lead in the second quarter.

“They know basketball well enough to know it’s a game of runs,” Gaither said. “I did not want to go into a huddle during a timeout and yell and get the guys too excited or nervous. I just kept telling them we are going to make our runs; be patient, and let’s do the little things like boxing out.”

Lower Richland ended the game on a 45-18 run to defeat Wren 51-42 and win the championship.

Gaither loses five seniors off the 2016-2017 Lower Richland team; however, some of the younger players like Tatum- McConner, Higgins, and Kelvin Hughes gained valuable experience they can use next season. Higgins finished the season as the team’s third leading scorer.

Nearly two weeks have passed since Lower Richland fans celebrated at the Colonial Life Arena. The team celebrated at Lower Richland High School Friday, March 10 by receiving their championship medals.

Still, it has taken some time for Gaither to fully realize what his team has accomplished.

“It still hasn’t completely sunk in,” Gaither said. “All the credit goes to the kids; everything we told them they went out and did it to perfection. That’s what it takes to make a run like that. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

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