The Lambert boys basketball team certainly hasn't become irrelevant, but the clear frontrunner status that the Longhorns appeared to have in Region 5-7A after going 10-3 prior to January -- easily the best record among region teams at that point -- isn't such a sure thing now.
Two losses to West Forsyth, one by five points on Jan. 5 and the other by three on Jan. 23, have left the Longhorns jostling with the Wolverines for the top seed in the region tournament. If the teams were to meet again there, that game could come down to another single-digit margin.
Since that second loss, though, Lambert has shown just how strong of a force it can be. After beating Forsyth Central 82-58, the Longhorns smashed Milton -- a team they had beaten by seven points on Jan. 9 -- in an 87-56 win. And on Tuesday night at South Forsyth, a team the Longhorns beat by just four on Jan. 12, Lambert pulled ahead after a tight first quarter and bested the War Eagles convincingly, 68-50.
"We're always going to think we're the best (in the region)," Lambert senior guard Jordan McIlwain said. "... Going into the tournament and stuff, we can't think that another team's better than us."
To McIlwain, the Longhorns' improvement since the second loss to West starts on defense. South had multiple long stints without a point on Tuesday, failing to score in the first three minutes of the first, second and third quarters. The War Eagles (8-16, 3-6 Region 5-7A) managed just 15 field goals in the game, with 14 of their points coming off free throws.
"We've started clicking in practice," McIlwain said. "(We've been) working on emphasizing defense, getting in the gaps, denying."
And while South's deliberate pace played a role in keeping Lambert's scoring below average, the Longhorns (18-5, 7-2) went quickly when they could, and junior guard Mitch Ganote created numerous run-out opportunities with his nine-steal performance.
There hasn't been an epiphany for Lambert late in the region schedule, and the Longhorns' overall plan hasn't changed much: They're still playing fast and playing basically the same main contributors. To head coach Scott Bracco, the reason for the second loss to West, at least, is pretty obvious: The Longhorns were 7-for-20 on free throws.
"You're not going to win too many games shooting 33 percent from the free throw line," Bracco said.
On Tuesday, the Longhorns were a much cleaner 9-for-12.
Lambert girls 51, South Forsyth 41
The night's first game was a rematch of one of the more exciting girls contests of the region schedule, which Lambert won 50-48 on Jan. 12, with Summer Edwards' layup giving the Longhorns the decisive lead with less than five seconds remaining.
Tuesday's game was another close contest, with the War Eagles trailing by just one point early in the fourth quarter, but Lambert went on a 9-0 run, powered by eight points from senior guard Katie Schwind, to keep South at a safe distance the rest of the way.
Edwards led Lambert (15-8, 7-2 Region 5-7A) with 14 points, and Schwind had 11. Zoe Maisel paced South with 12, and Sara Idris added 10 for the War Eagles (14-10, 5-4).