Throughout the feverish action in the second half of the Region 5-7A boys championship game on Friday night at South Forsyth, the technical fouls for both Lambert and West Forsyth, the dueling student sections, the numerous contested calls, one thing scarcely budged.
West’s Andrew Stanton scored a field goal just under two minutes into the third quarter for the Wolverines. And for almost 14 minutes of game action, West wouldn’t get another one.
The Longhorns turned in what is surely one of the county’s all-time defensive efforts in the second half on Friday, giving up just 10 points after surrendering 42 in the first half and turning a nervous scenario into a 71-52 blowout win to take the region title and a No. 1 state playoff seed.
“The press really helped us out,” Lambert senior guard Austin Deckard said. “We got a lot of hands on the balls, a lot of deflections, a lot of steals, and we just converted that into offense.”
Lambert had shown no previous sign that it was capable of doing what the Longhorns did on Friday. Their first two games against West, in fact, saw the Wolverines run Lambert up and down the court, winning 80-77 on Jan. 5 and 85-81 on Jan. 23.
“We just had the mindset (that) we’ve beat West so many times before, we were just going to come in there and beat them again,” Longhorns junior guard Mitch Ganote said. “So those first two times, we came in there with that mindset, and they kicked our butts.”
In the first half on Friday, that happened again. But once Lambert started its full-court press, roughly halfway through the third quarter, the Longhorns almost eliminated West’s offense. In the time between Stanton’s early basket and one from Russell Miller with 20 seconds left in the game, the Wolverines only scored on free throws.
With Lambert trailing 44-43 with four minutes left in the third quarter, Ryan Barthel got a steal and hit a three-pointer. That gave the Longhorns (21-5) a 46-44 lead, and they would hold the advantage for the rest of the game, filling West’s passing lanes as the Wolverines (16-13) tried to move the ball up the floor and crowding their dribblers in the half-court.
Ganote hit two free throws with 4:24 left in the game to push the lead to double digits, and when he got a steal and finished a layup 10 seconds later, the Longhorns’ bench spilled onto the court in celebration.
The win gave the Longhorns their first region title in the second year of Region 5-7A and positioned them to potentially move further in the state playoffs than they did last year, when they lost in the second round to McEachern.
And as for keys for success moving forward, Friday’s game couldn’t have made them any more obvious for the Longhorns.
“I sound like a broken record, but defense and rebounding, that’s all,” Ganote said.
Jordan McIlwain led Lambert with 17 points, and Ganote had 12. Michael Zabetakis had 13 for West, and Stanton had 10.