(Photo Credit: Chris Dearing/Cola Daily)

As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard at the USC-Aiken Convocation Center Thursday night, Irmo coach Tim Whipple simply raised his arms in the air and let out a deep sigh of relief.

It didn’t matter that the Yellow Jackets led nearly from the beginning. He wasn’t comfortable until the final few seconds. The 58-45 victory over Lancaster in the SCHSL Class 4A boys basketball state championship game gave Whipple his sixth title overall and first since going undefeated in 2013.

“This entire year, we have tried to live in the moment. We haven’t looked ahead. We haven’t looked behind,” Whipple said. “We haven’t let the good things or the bad things bother us. We never worried about what was ahead, we took care of business.”

“Right now, I’m living in the moment and I’m having a hard time with this. But I am trying to enjoy this moment the best I can. This is a special group of young men. I am so happy for Irmo High School and our community that we are able to bring home a state championship trophy.”

Whipple was asked when he would be able to enjoy the moment to the fullest and he let go with a sly smile and decided it wasn’t far off.

“It’s hard for me. Right now, I’m kind of saying enjoy the moment but I’m not. It’s hard for me to do,” Whipple said. “On the bus ride home, I will relax and will reflect and then I will finally be able to smile a lot tomorrow.”

It was a dominant first half that helped Irmo (26-5) add to its trophy case. Whipple also won state championships in 1991, 1994, 1995, 2011 and 2013 while finishing runner-up five times since 1990.

After falling behind 2-0, it was all Yellow Jackets during the opening 16 minutes. A 17-4 run over the final 6:56 gave Irmo a double digit lead they wouldn’t relinquish. By the time the teams reached the locker room, Irmo had extended the lead to 32-9.

“It was the difference in the game,” Whipple said. “If we don’t get that early lead, it changes the entire complexion of the game. It enabled us to make mistakes and still be able to survive that. Every time they looked up at the scoreboard, they were behind 20 points. It had to affect their demeanor and the way they play. The big lead early was huge.”

Madden Collins and AJ Brand each had nine points at the break but it was the defensive effort that was the difference. Lancaster missed the final 17 shots of the half and had a field drought of 10:12 that stretched into the third quarter.

The Bruins finished the half by making just 3-of-25 shots or 12 percent.

“We made a couple of shots, we made a couple of three’s but I think the key was they didn’t score,” Whipple said. “I think that helped us create a situation to loosen up a little bit and we made some shots and they struggled. As that lead built, it made them struggle a little bit more offensively.”

All that was needed as sophomore All-State selection Jordan Watford tried to single-handedly bring Lancaster (27-4) back. He scored 21 of his 25 shots in the second half when the Bruins outscored the Yellow Jackets by 10 points.

But it was too little, too late against the balanced Irmo attack.

Madden Collins finished with a team-high 16 points and Brand chipped in with 15 points. Brandon Crawford was his dominant self, filling up the stat sheet with 12 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and four assists.

“I’ve never had a player as dominant on the defensive end of the floor and more effect on other teams than Brandon Crawford,” Whipple said. “Without him in there, we don’t even come close.”

Irmo won nine in a row to finish the season after suffering a mini three game slump while Crawford was out due to mononucleosis. They lost two games while he was out then lost in his first game back, all on their home floor.

But they caught fire at the right time of year. Their smallest margin of victory in the playoffs was 13 points in the championship.

Brand, who is the quarterback on the football team and has a football offer from South Carolina as an athlete, was playing his first season of basketball with the Yellow Jackets. He’s glad he decided to give it a go and he was rewarded to be a part of Irmo history.

“It’s definitely crazy. I never expected myself to be in this position but I’m glad I’m with the team, I’m glad we’re having fun and most of all, we came out with the win,” Brand said. “It feels good to bring (the championship) back. Knowing I haven’t played, knowing the great legacy of Tim Whipple, I had to come experience it for myself.”

I: Madden Collins 16, AJ Brand 15, Brandon Crawford 12, Te’Andre Summons 7, Mason Collins 5, Jonathan White 3. L: Jordan Watford 25, LaDarius Cloud 9, Grayson Kirk 5, Colby Small 3, RJ Brown 2, Jy Gladden 1.

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