The door to the Lambert boys basketball team’s locker room holds a reminder of the program’s excellence: a picture of the team posing in celebration after winning this year’s region championship.
But as the downcast Longhorns walked out after their 56-47 loss in the state playoffs to Meadowcreek on Wednesday night, thoughts turned to a door of the metaphorical kind, one that Lambert has yet to open.
Longhorns head coach Scott Bracco will readily point out that Lambert is on a run that has few peers in the state: five straight state playoff berths, all with a first-round win.
The game after that is where the Lambert has been consistently blocked, though.
“There’s definitely frustration, because we know we’re good enough,” junior guard Mitch Ganote said. “It just seems like it’s a locked door, and we can’t get it open.”
The Mustangs, whom Lambert beat in the first round last year, did that Wednesday with aggressive defense and a post presence on both ends that the Longhorns couldn’t match.
Meadowcreek, a No. 2 seed to the Longhorns’ No. 1, heavily pressured the ball and forced Lambert out of the free-flowing offense it typically prefers. The Longhorns’ full-court press was scarce, and they often settled into the deliberate tempo that Meadowcreek prefers.
“You’ve got to make baskets to start pressing,” Bracco said. “We just had a tough time in the first half putting the ball in the hole. Not only (is Meadowcreek) big, they have great length and defend hard.”
The Mustangs at times often employed a lineup with that had both 6-foot-7 Cory Hightower and 6-foot-9 Amari Kelly, a Duquesne signee, while Lambert at times had 6-foot-4 Damon Stoudamire as its tallest player on the floor. That helped Meadowcreek gain a rebounding advantage at both ends and get plenty of second-chance looks.
“At the end of the day, we tried, but I think they were just too big,” Ganote said.
The game’s moderate tempo and a few big three-pointers helped Lambert stay within single digits for most of the game, only letting the Mustangs’ advantage reach double digits for a brief period at the end of the third quarter. After Ganote got a steal in the press and finished a layup, the Longhorns trailed just 43-39 with 5:16 left in the game.
Lambert couldn’t get closer than that, though, and Meadowcreek made enough free throws down the stretch to avoid a collapse.
The Longhorns ended their season with a 22-6 record, and they’ll have to replace a number of important seniors next year, like the starting trio of Stoudamire, Austin Deckard and Jordan McIlwain. But with Ganote set to return and sophomores like post Colin Granger and guard Braxton Beaty getting ample experience, Lambert looks to be in position to contend again next year.
That’s when Bracco thinks the Longhorns will finally get through that door.
“We’ll be back here next year,” he said. “We’ll go through the box, and we’ll find the right key. We’re going to find the key that opens the door to the elite eight next year.”