FLORENCE | For the first time in school history, Conway made the lower state basketball finals.
That will have to be enough.
The Tigers were blown out at the Florence Center by Dutch Fork, losing 71-52 and ending the hoops careers of two heavily influential seniors, Tonka Hemingway and Tim Steele.
“They’re really, really close. Words can’t describe it right now,” Conway coach Mike Hopkins said. “In years, they’ll come back and see they were a part of something where the foundation really started.”
The onset of the revival of Tigers basketball was as much part of the post-game discussion as was the loss. The game itself was a disappointment. And each of the players know how close they came to advancing further than anyone would have imagined, even earlier this month when the Tigers won the Region VI-5A championship for the second straight season.
But in the tunnels of the Florence Center, the legacy of Steele and Hemingway was front and center. Without them, the last three seasons would have had dramatically different results.
As sophomores, the tandem played key roles alongside future University of Rhode Island forward Jimmy Nichols to lead the Tigers to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since the early 1990s. And then, the last two years as the centerpieces, they matched that and more.
“He’s always going to be my brother,” Steele said of his front-court mate. “It means a lot that we grew up together. We always dreamed of this.”
Frankly, up until last spring, very few outside the Hemingway family thought this season would even include the future University of South Carolina football player. Hemingway, who inked with the Gamecocks in December, was well on his way to graduating early and enrolling at USC to begin his college career.
Instead, he announced during his initial commitment ceremony in August that he would be sticking it out for the standard haul.
“I knew we could have a pretty good season,” he said. “I wanted to leave a mark for the young ones. I came back and gave it my all for this basketball program. I wanted to enjoy my senior year.”
His last time in a basketball uniform included another 20-point performance, one that has become the norm for a player who averaged four-tenths north of that this year. Steele punched in 11 of his own. However, those figures were inconsequential compared to what the Silvers Foxes did.
Frankly, the exact moment that everything started to go downhill for Conway against Dutch Fork wasn’t hard to discover. After taking a 25-22 lead on eighth grader Devin Grainger’s three-pointer with a little over three minutes to play in the second quarter, Dutch Fork went to work.
It ended the first half on a 10-0 run, and then opened the second half by scoring the first 10 points there, too. Before much longer, the Silver Foxes — led by Jarvis Green (25 points in the game) and A.J. Knight (13 points) — were holding an insurmountable lead and no signs of letting up until the final moments before the buzzer.
“They played with a smaller lineup that was really aggressive. The goal for us was to make sure we got a shot every time. We’ll shoot it with a chance to make it or we’ll have a chance to rebound it. We had some key, key possessions [in the second quarter] in which we turned the ball over. I think they scored six points off turnovers right there. … They got momentum, and they kind of rolled that into the third quarter. We had to play their style of ball instead of how we wanted to play.”
Dutch Fork (21-9) will move on to the Class 5A state finals against No. 2 nationally ranked Dorman at 7 p.m. Friday at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. It will be a rematch of the two schools. They also played for the Class 5A football championship last fall.
Meanwhile, Conway’s big two will have to wonder what could have been.
Hemingway, the Region VI-5A player of the year each of the last two seasons, will end his basketball career with an all-state nod and an invitation to the North-South All-Star basketball game, which will be played next month in Columbia. He’ll also start preparing for a final prep season on the diamond as early as Monday.
Steele, committed to play collegiately at Lenoir-Rhyne, ends his time in a Tigers uniform after three-plus seasons on the varsity squad.
“It hurts. It hurts bad,” Steele said. “We had a chance to get to state, but we still made history at Conway. So I’m very proud of that.”
Said Hopkins: “Three out of four years, those guys have been in the third round of the playoffs. It culminated to [within] one game of Columbia.”