Skylar Smith wasn’t going to let a sloppy start define her Hilton Head Christian Academy finale. In the second half of a back-and-forth scrap in Sumter, the senior found her shot — and propelled her Eagles to a fourth consecutive state title.
Smith and Tamya Hutchinson led the way with 13 points each, and the Eagles rattled off a scorching 20-4 third-quarter run Saturday to vanquish Orangeburg Prep 45-34 and capture the SCISA 2A girls basketball championship for the fourth year in a row.
“It’s great, I’m extremely lucky to have this feeling,” Smith said. “Coach said if we were going to shoot the jumper we were going to live by the jumper, and that got in our heads and we started knocking them down.”
It was an uncharacteristic start for the Eagles’ potent offense, as the Indians executed their game plan of packing the paint to prevent Abby Peduzzi from easy looks in the post. Explosive forward Campbell Delaney was able to find driving lanes and get to the foul line on the other end to build an early 8-2 Orangeburg Prep lead.
The outside shots weren’t falling early for Smith and the Eagles, but a speedy take to the basket and a key rebound by Tamya Hutchinson energized the offense before Peduzzi outwilled a swarming Indian defense to the hoop to cut the lead to 10-7. After three straight Smith misses from deep to start the game, the sharpshooter drained her first to draw even at 10.
The Eagles’ momentum continued to build with their suffocating defense, as Peduzzi, Hutchinson, and Devon Yarde all came up with steals while Mackenzie Buchter grabbed a huge board on offense to strengthen a 7-0 run. Just as the three-time champs were looking to pull away with a four-point lead, a rare lapse late in the half swung the pendulum right back to the underdogs. Sparked by a flurry of missed shots and turnovers, the Indians rallied for nine straight points including six from Delaney to stride into the locker room with a 19-14 lead.
Kenny Conroy never lost trust in his shooters, and neither did his team. The Eagles won with their hustle to begin the second half, as Yarde shut down Delaney’s effective drives to the hoop while Peduzzi and Mackenzie Buchter cleaned up on the glass.
Then the offense turned to Hutchinson, who finished strong at the rim for a game-tying layup before making a beautiful pass on a break to Buchter to complete a 7-0 burst and go back in front 21-19. But it was her stifling defense that set up her new team for its championship-defining run.
After anticipating and picking off a backwards pass, the Estill transfer weaved past her defender and missed a tough layup that dropped into the arms of an alert Smith. The Indians left Peduzzi open in the corner to defend the inside, and she was more than ready to seize the opportunity, splashing a three-pointer that set the Eagles ablaze.
In nearly the same spot as her game-winner two years ago, Smith nailed a triple on a dazzling Tamya feed before a Yarde free-throw line jumper, Hutchinson corner fadeaway, and another Smith triple put the crowd on its feet and the champs in command.
In a matter of mere minutes, the Eagles were soaring to a 34-23 lead.
“I kept telling Skylar to keep shooting the ball, you’re a shooter,” Conroy said. “It paid off when she started making a couple of threes.”
The strong outside shooting opened up driving lanes to the basket, and Hutchinson stormed in for a layup to raised the lead to 13 points. Hilton Head Christian took some pressure off in the fourth quarter and let the Indians trim the lead back to eight at 42-34, but Smith’s clutch free-throw shooting didn’t let it get any closer.
It was a coronation from there, as the Eagles ran out the clock and stormed center court for the fourth year in a row. Kenny Conroy’s warriors had done it again.
“It just gets better each time,” Peduzzi said. “It really was a battle. We were able to stop their drives, stay out of foul trouble, and rebound the ball.“
Hutchinson and Smith took over in a sensational second half, pouring in 13 points each to lead their Eagles back. Smith sank all four of her free throws to go along with three rebounds and three blocks, while Hutchinson added six boards, four assists, and four steals. Peduzzi put up a crucial nine points including a key triple while dominating on the glass and on the defensive end of the court with 12 rebounds and two steals. Buchter stepped up with four rebounds and six important points, and Yarde recorded four points, four rebounds, three deflections, and a steal.
From the start of her basketball career, Smith pushed herself to become the best shooter, teammate, and leader she could become. In her final game at the high school level, she showed the product of all of her hard work and guided her Eagles to one last state title. Her unwavering determination was the epitome of her team and the spark that took the Eagles from a contender to a full-fledged dynasty.
“She’s a warrior,” Conroy said. “Skylar’s been playing all year with a sprained ankle. She’s in the gym every morning and the last one to stay after practice. She’s a very special player and will be a tough one to lose.”
By Wes Kerr
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