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In 42 seasons of coaching and 18 state championship game appearances, you would think Great Falls High boys basketball coach John Smith has seen it all.
Plenty, including now seven state titles for the Red Devils after an exciting 53-50 comeback win over Burke High of Charleston, but last Saturday was a first for the Lancaster native, a legend in Palmetto State prep hoops.
Smith’s latest GFHS juggernaut, in its third straight Class A state title game, was in a dire situation late in the contest.
The Red Devils were down 11 points – 40-29 to the Class A Lower State champion Burke Bulldogs with 1:19 to play in the third period.
“We’ve never been down 11 in the second half of a state championship game and come back,” said Smith. “That was a first. To be down 11 and come back against a good team, that just doesn’t happen.”
Not to many teams, but again Smith is the state’s all-time winningest boys basketball coach, not to mention a Hall of Fame coach. He’s no stranger to tight title game situations, even if this was his biggest championship deficit.
Over the years, he proven his bench prowess and Saturday was an example.
Smith will be the first to tell you his latest Red Devils’ squad doesn’t sport a star, but it’s a cohesive unit, which is the epitome of teamwork.
Saturday’s decisive late run was reflected in the teamwork which was needed to hoist the state championship trophy by mid-afternoon Saturday at the Colonial Life Center in Columbia.
Great Falls’ charge to its seventh state crown under Smith was all about playing together and making the most of a do-or-die challenge. The Red Devils erased Burke’s 11-point lead with a remarkable 24-10 run over the final 9:19.
Great Falls used a 6-0 flurry to cap the third period to close the gap, 40-35. GFHS’s top scorer Xavier Holmes nailed a three and then fed Brandon Criscoe for a bucket and he was fouled and hit the key free throw to quickly make it a five-point game.
“That was huge,” Smith noted.
That was just the start as Holmes, who hit 18, nailed two free throws to make it, 40-37 early in the final period, and the Red Devils, just like that, were back in it.
Later, Ernest Talford drilled a trey to make it, 48-47, and then Shaq Simpson produced a crucial steal which led to a Criscoe layup and a 49-48 GFHS lead. The Bulldogs answered with a hoop for a 50-49 edge, but the Red Devils finished fast with a 4-0 run to take the 53-50 win.
“Burke gave us some openings, and we took advantage,” Smith said. “We have a balanced team and all five players contributed in that run. We had all five players making plays on both ends of the court. We made big shots and big plays.”
It’s been that way for Smith in 42 seasons leading the Red Devils, who under Smith have been to an amazing 21 Upper State finals. You can do the math because it’s easy. He’s made it to the Upstate title game half the time he’s been at the Chester County Class A high school.
It all started with a Lancaster connection in 1969 as then GFHS athletic director Harvey Stewart, a Lancaster native like Smith, hired him out of Newberry College where he had a solid college career after graduating and starring at Lancaster High.
Stewart knew Smith through his old LHS basketball coach, the late Don
“Harvey was coaching three sports at the time, serving as athletic
director and teaching a full load of classes,” Smith said. “He was looking to give up
one sport and it didn’t take a genius to figure basketball had Tuesday nights,
with school the next day.
“Harvey didn’t know if I could coach, but he knew I loved basketball,” Smith
Smith, still the all-time leading scorer at Lancaster High with 1,228 career points, played for
Dixon his final season after being coached as a junior by Wade Corn, the
legendary LHS football coach. Prior to that he was coached in his early
career by Tom Hendrix.
“I learned from each one,” Smith said. “Mr. Dixon was a real tactician and
knew the game. Coach Corn, like a football coach, stressed being in shape
and playing physical. Coach Hendrix stressed the fundamentals. You had to
know that before you could execute an offense.”
Smith noted he still watches practices, including some college sessions,
to help forge his own style. You don’t coach for 42 years and win seven
state titles by doing the same old same old.
“If you don’t stay current, the game will pass you by,” he said. “I try to
be up with things.”
Obviously, it’s paid huge hoops dividends over his career, and as recent as last Saturday.
Smith’s Red Devils experienced a challenging title game first and responded by
making it another banner season in a lasting legacy of hardwood success.