GAFFNEY, S.C. -- It’s impossible to create the atmosphere that surrounds a major high school playoff game. The right mixture of teams, the setting and the stakes combine effortlessly to produce classic contests.
Two teams, deep into possible state title runs, clashed in front of a vociferous partisan crowd at Gaffney High School. It was one of those games you were happy to have attended, if lucky enough to get a ticket.
Sophomore L.J. Peak (Gaffney, S.C./Gaffney) and his contingent outlasted Clemson-bound senior Jordan Roper (Irmo, S.C./Irmo) Tuesday night. Gaffney’s gym holds 1,800 but don’t tell the 2,000-plus in attendance that as they squeezed into “The Burial Ground” and took in a thriller.
Games like this, at this time of the year, are what the sport of high school basketball is all about. This wasn’t just two of the best teams in South Carolina, it was a pair of proud towns clashing for a trip to the BI-LO Center this weekend. Gaffney won 59-58 and it was that close the entire game. Complete with FSU-style tomahawk chop chants in the final quarter, the place was rocking. It was a fine example of the passion for high school sports that exists in pockets throughout our country. As someone who sees a ton of high school games, this was one of the highlights of my year, if not the highlight. Gonzaga at DeMatha was right up there too.
Roper, a 6-foot scaled down and not as souped up version of Tyrese Rice, had his high school career come to an end on this night. Roper did all he could – sometimes maybe more than he needed – to fend off Gaffney. Down the stretch he smoked a big 3-pointer – his only bucket of the second half – but it wasn’t to be. Roper finished with a game-high 26 points.
At Clemson next year, Roper will compete with Adonis Filer (Dolton, Ill./Notre Dame Prep) and sophomore to-be Rod Hall for minutes. Roper is a lead guard with the DNA of lefty scorer. The strength of his game is his pull-up jumper which he'll launch behind the line but is equally -- if not more -- proficient from midrange. He'll need to beef up his handle, especially in traffic. A quick release is a nice neutralizer given the fact he's not the biggest guard. Brad Brownell will like him because he can play at different speeds and has a half court mindset.
Clemson assistant Earl Grant attended the game. But wait, didn’t Clemson play at Georgia Tech on Tuesday? It did but Brownell decided the Tigers needed a presence in Gaffney because not only was Roper on the court but Peak was as well. Grant might not be allowed to go to the next Clemson game either because the Tigers spanked Georgia Tech by 19 points while he was out recruiting.
Peak, a 6-foot-5 sophomore small forward, had 18 points to go with six rebounds. A bouncy scorer who’s extended his perimeter game this season, Peak advances to play again. Against Irmo he never fully got into the flow of the game and if Gaffney is to keep its season alive, it will need more energy and rebounds out of him. His off balance feat of athleticism in the second half resulted in a tip-in which sent him sprawling to the floor where he banged his head. A short trip to the locker room and a few timeouts later and he re-entered the gym Willis Reed-style courtesy the Gaffney faithful.
Peak is undoubtedly the top target of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers. More national level teams are going to come check out this Top 50ish sophomore as the spring AAU season unfolds. Maybe one or two of them will head to Columbia this weekend where he’s seeking to continue his season.
In my line of work, it’s easy to take things for granted. You see so many games, watch players all over the country in different settings; I can’t lie; sometimes you become desensitized to the whole process. Well, on Tuesday, I realized why I love my job. The place was rocking; there were good players on the floor and the planets aligned to give us a great game in an awesome atmosphere. Hopefully this won’t be the last great highlight of the high school season. However, from now on this season, I’ve got something to measure the rest by.