ALPHARETTA — Logan Bush scored 19 crucial points for Lambert, but the offensive rebound he snagged with 17.6 seconds remaining was every bit as important.
With the Longhorns clinging to a two-point lead against South Forsyth, Bush rebounded a missed free throw attempt by teammate Jake Morris and called timeout.
The War Eagles were forced to foul Bush on the ensuing inbound play, and the junior forward hit two free throws that allowed No. 3 seed Lambert to cement a 52-47 win over No. 6 seed South in the opening round of the Region 6-AAAAAA tournament and earn the program’s first-ever state playoff berth on Wednesday at Alpharetta High School.
"This is a big win for Lambert basketball," Lambert head coach Scott Bracco said. "I’m building and establishing a winning basketball tradition.
"Our standards are to make the state tournament every year and our goal at Lambert is to win forever. I know the community is proud of us, but we have bigger goals in mind [and want] to make a nice run in the state tournament."
Bush led the Longhorns (17-9) in scoring and Morris added 14 points to help avoid an upset bid by the War Eagles, who held leads at halftime and the end of the third quarter.
South came a long way after going 0-2 against Lambert during the regular season, including a 73-46 loss in the region opener on Dec. 7, but it wasn’t quite enough for the War Eagles to keep their season from ending at the hands of their biggest rival.
"South played a tough game today," Bracco said. "It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season and plus that’s a rivalry game, so the intensity was up on both sides.
"We just made some great plays down the stretch on the defensive end and we were lucky enough to win the game."
Neither team established a lead bigger than five points — with the exception of a brief moment in which Lambert pulled ahead 15-8 late in the opening quarter.
The War Eagles held Bush scoreless in the second quarter and posted their third lead of the game, 26-24, on a 3-pointer by Wes Brown with 1:51 left in the half.
South remained ahead 29-26 at halftime.
Lambert came out hot in the second half, as Morris tied the game 29-29 with a 3-pointer early in the third period.
Morris credited his teammates’ screens for helping free him up for shots.
"A lot of our offense gets the shooters free," Morris said, "and luckily me and Logan were hitting [shots] today."
Lambert appeared to seize control for a short time following Morris’ 3-pointer, as Bush forced turnovers on three consecutive South possessions and scored four points during that stretch to put the Longhorns ahead 35-31.
South was forced to burn two timeouts in the first 1:35 of the second half, but regained the momentum moments later after Bush was briefly forced out of the game with an arm injury.
The War Eagles finished the period on a 6-1 run and led 37-36 going into the final quarter.
The Longhorns regained the lead in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter when forward Trevor Shipes converted a three-point play at the foul line, but they were never able to pull away.
Morris scored six points in the final period and Bush added five, including a three-point play he finished at the free-throw line to push Lambert’s lead to 48-43 with 2:15 remaining.
Greer Landry (team-high 14 points) answered for South with a basket off an assist from Geronimo Cruz, and fellow senior Doug Cotter (12 points) knocked down a jumper to cut Lambert’s lead to 48-47 with 1:11 remaining.
Lambert ran the clock down until Cruz fouled Morris with 17.6 seconds left, sending him to the free throw line. He hit his first attempt before Bush corralled the second, preventing South from having a chance to tie or take the lead.
Bush hit the clinching free throws with 11.1 seconds remaining and South’s Jack Armstrong missed a 3-pointer on the War Eagles’ ensuing possession. Lambert’s Brennan Gagen grabbed the rebound and drew a foul before tacking on the Longhorns’ final point with 0.7 seconds left.
"It’s our first state playoff [berth] in boys basketball and the whole team is pumped," Morris said. "We’re ready for the big dance."
Lambert will face No. 2 seed Alpharetta in the region tournament semifinals at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.