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Basketball: Lambert boys embracing challenges, lessons learned from prestigious tournament
Lambert forward Colin Granger looks to score while defended by Southwest DeKalb’s Eugene Brown III on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in the Tournament of Champions Classic at Wheeler High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

MARIETTA – The second half had started so well for Lambert boys basketball. Sure, sophomore forward Colin Granger had picked up his third foul just 28 seconds into the third quarter. But in one encouraging spurt, the best qualities of the Longhorns were on display: decisive passes, swift actions and smooth 3-pointers, by Austin Deckard and Jordan McIlwain. Suddenly, Lambert led a Southwest DeKalb team ranked No. 5 in Class 5A by 10.

Six minutes later, a maelstrom of turnovers, missed shots, plus a technical foul had the Longhorns trailing by 11 at the end of the quarter. As the team went to the bench before the start of the fourth quarter, a few players muttered aloud their prescriptions for turning things around; better shot selection was one idea.

Head coach Scott Bracco approached his group, and his advice was more succinct and reflective.

“You guys wanna get past the Sweet 16?” Bracco said. “You gotta take care of the ball. That’s why we’re here.”

Lambert only marginally cut down its turnovers in the fourth quarter, but Southwest DeKalb’s superior length made its full-court pressure defense problematic for the Longhorns. The Panthers took a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, which Lambert eventually trimmed to five, but Southwest pulled away for a 69-58 victory Thursday morning in the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic at Wheeler High School.

Lambert senior Damon Stoudamire Jr. attempts a free throw Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 in the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic at Wheeler High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

Damon Stoudamire Jr. had 15 points and 16 rebounds for Lambert, while Deckard had 14 points, McIlwain had 11 points and Granger added 10 points and seven rebounds despite second-half foul trouble.

“We played well,” Stoudamire Jr. said. “We’ve got to handle pressure. We were right there. The game just slipped.”

Lambert was ambitious with its schedule this season, and it reached a high-profile crescendo at the Tournament of Champions Holiday Classic. The field of 34 teams came from five states and brought 10 prospects ranked nationally in the top 100 of the Class of 2018, 2019 and 2020. Ten of the teams from Georgia were ranked in their respective classification.

It was hosted at Wheeler, one of the chapels of Georgia high school basketball, a school on a secluded neighborhood road in Marietta. Former head coach Doug Lipscomb took over in 1992 and built the program into one with national prominence. When he stepped down after last season, Lipscomb had won over 600 games, six state championships and had five players go on to play in the NBA. His name was on the gym floor Lambert played on Thursday morning.

Lambert’s attendance had several positives. The prestige of the event attracted college coaches looking for talent and the Longhorns’ presence – possible by invitation only – added legitimacy to their recent success.

“It’s a great tournament,” Bracco said. “Great teams, great players, a lot of college coaches. It’s great exposure for our team and our players and Lambert High School. We’re excited to be here.”

Lambert really came to Wheeler with the state tournament in mind. The Longhorns have reached it five consecutive seasons and seem likely to do so again. Lambert’s last four trips have ended in the second round, a frustrating plateau of sorts, and Bracco hasn’t shied away from the Longhorns’ state semifinals aspiration. Forsyth County hasn't had a boys basketball team advance that far since South Forsyth did in 1998.

Lambert guard Jordan McIlwain shoots Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in the Tournament of Champions Classic at Wheeler High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

The only way to break through seemed to be to take on the best competition possible. Let them expose every advantage and weakness now and harness that information later for a state tournament run.

“We’re still learning,” Bracco said. “…We find something new every game.”

Southwest DeKalb was a good barometer. The Panthers’ athletic pressure defense flummoxed Lambert into 24 turnovers, and the Longhorns were vulnerable in the paint when Granger left the game in foul trouble.

But Bracco also saw the ingredients of a team capable of more than winning one game in the state tournament. There was a quick burst at the end of the second quarter that ended with a gritty tip-in at the buzzer by Stoudamire Jr. to give Lambert a 30-24 lead at halftime. There was the climb from down 13 to just 5 when Granger stole a pass at the top of the key and finished a breakaway one-handed dunk to get within 59-54 with under 3 minutes left to play.

“We played very well in spurts,” Bracco said. “So we have to put a whole 32-minute, solid game together, and we can make that (state semifinals) run.”