Gray Collegiate boys headed to state final

By Thomas Grant Jr.

For the sixth time in seven years, the Gray Collegiate boys’ basketball team is headed to the Class 2A finals.

The top-ranked War Eagles defeated W.J. Keenan 45-38 in the Lower State final at the Florence Center.

Treyvon Maddox scored 14 points and Brayhlan Thomas had 12 points for Gray Collegiate (31-6). It will now face fellow charter school Oceanside Collegiate for the second straight year in the state final at 4 p.m. Friday in Florence.

This was the War Eagles’ third semifinal win in four meetings over the Raiders. Saturday’s matchup was also the culmination of a rivalry which has grown bitter from off-court issues.

W.J. Keenan, along with its fellow Region 4-A schools, opted to forfeit games against Gray Collegiate. It was in protest of what they believe is an unfair recruiting advantage the West Columbia school enjoys over other region and Class 2A schools.

Another point of contention came to the surface during the post-game handshake. As W.J. Keenan head coach Zach Norris walked towards Gray Collegiate head coach Dion Bethea and reached out to shake hands, he quickly jerked his hand away.

As tempers flared between the two teams, the assistant coaches sent their respective players back to the locker room.

Afterwards, Norris stated his issue with Bethea pertained to the S.C. Basketball Coaches Association’s All-State team selection process. He believed the Gray Collegiate coaching staff manipulated things to get their three players selected after none were chosen among the top two players in the region by the coaches.

Normally, those players would earn an automatic selection to the All-State team. The Region 4-2A  coaches had voted Keenan’s Brian Sumpter and Columbia’s Zay Buckley as its top two players since none played Gray Collegiate this season.

Instead, Buckley was left off the All-State team. Thomas was named Class 2A Player of the Year and Ellis Graham and Treyvon Maddox were selected with Sumpter.

“It was some undercover stuff,” he said. “I’m not going to harp on it. You don’t mess over kids. That’s all I’ve got to say, and it was wrong what was done.”

Bethea was interviewed before Norris and acknowledged the “very personal” nature of the rivalry with W.J. Keenan. At the end of the day, he said his program carries itself with “class” and “sportsmanship”.

“I’m not even going to put my energy into that,” he said. “We won the game. We advance. That’s the end of that. So I’ve got no comments towards that. We won, we advance and we’re playing for the state championship on the 1st.”

Gray Collegiate is 5-0 all-time at the state finals.

As for the game, Norris cited his team’s 5-11 shooting from the free throw line and turnovers at “inopportune times” for the loss.

The defensive nature of both teams combined with the challenging shooting environment made for another low-scoring game. Gray Collegiate scored 11 points in each of the first two quarters. Maddox led all scorers with eight.

Conversely, the War Eagles held W.J. Keenan to just six field goals in the first half to head into the locker room leading 22-14.

Gray Collegiate stretched their lead to 11 points in the third quarter. Tyheim McNeil kept W.J. Keenan within striking distance with three, second-half three-pointers, bringing it to within 33-29 in the fourth quarter.

L.J. Britt answered with a 3-pointer to put Gray Collegiate up 36-29 with 6:26 left in the game. After a free throw by Sumpter, who finished with nine points, Justin Pauling scored on a putback layup.

Following the score, Britt was pushed in the chest by McNeil. He was whistled for a technical foul for which Maddox made two free throw to push Gray Collegiate’s lead back to double digits.

W.J. Keenan only got as close as six points the rest of the game.  

“Gray’s got a great team,” Norris said. “They play really good. It ain’t hard to play when you’ve got them from all over the state and other states. He’s got big bodies and his kids stay focused. I’ve got to give my props to them. They stay really focused.”

The two teams will not compete in the same region or classification next year. W.J. Keenan is moving up to Class 3A, while Gray Collegiates jumps up two classifications to Class 4A.

Photos by Thomas Grant Jr.