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Basketball: Lambert defeats North Forsyth for first region championship
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Lambert’s Mandy Clarke, from left, Jaleah Greene, M.E. Craven and Molly Williams celebrate with teammates after winning the Region 5-7A championship Friday. - photo by Micah Green

Locked out of their locker room, the Lambert girls basketball team had nowhere but in the empty hallway to let out their elation, and it came out in one screaming wave that stabbed the ears.

That is the beauty of youth: it exists in the present, not concerned with processing all the unexplainable, thrilling machinations that produced the program’s first region championship ever with a 59-58 victory against North Forsyth on Friday at Milton High School.

Lambert head coach Jaime Fisher then walked into that hallway caught somewhere in the middle.

“I don’t know what just happened,” she said.

Well, her team trailed 58-52 with less than two minutes left, seemingly unable to handle North guard Caroline Martin. Her team had made just 6 of 19 free throws. Her team, like North, was seemingly handcuffed with foul trouble.

But then her team summoned everything it had left. Its frenetic defense rattled the Lady Raiders, forcing turnovers on three consecutive possessions, and Lambert junior M.E. Craven, named the Region 5-7A player of the year after the game, made 5 of 6 free throws, the final with 4.5 seconds left, after missing her first five of the game.

“I knew I had missed a lot in the first half,” Craven said, “but once I made one it just started clicking.”

“She’s a veteran player for us,” Fisher said, “and she knew we needed to step up in the second half. She knew she needed to make those free throws, and she did.”

Craven finished with nine points, seven coming in the second half, to go along with 10 rebounds and three steals. Summer Edwards led Lambert (24-2) with 18 points, helped by four 3-pointers. Leah Cote was crucial off the bench, finishing with 14 points, including nine in a first half that ended with the teams tied 27-27.

And it should have been no surprise. The teams’ previous two meetings during the regular season set a high standard for what Friday could become. Lambert won both – 46-40 on Dec. 16 and 39-37 on Jan. 20 – but they followed similar scripts: light-speed and tight, able to be swayed by any number of variables.

Early on, fouls set the tone, a product of both teams’ pressure defense. Officials called 28 total fouls in the first half. Indeed, Martin finished the first quarter with two free throws, and they gave North (20-7) a 19-10 lead, its largest of the game.

“We knew it was going to be a physical game,” Fisher said. “North is a great basketball team. They played us tight all three games this year.”

This game swung from North’s nine-point first quarter lead, to Lambert’s seven-point fourth quarter lead when Cote made a free throw, back to that 58-52 lead for North after Martin exploded. She hit a pull-up 3, converted a three-point play on a transition floater and finished a tough drive, the last of her team-best 17 points.

“Caroline Martin was unbelievable down the stretch,” North head coach Eric Herrick said.

But she never scored again. No one from North did. Instead, Lambert punched back with its defense.

It started with a layup by Edwards. 58-54. North’s Cassie Markle (12 points) then fouled Craven, who made both free throws with 44.7 seconds left. 58-56. Craven went back to the free-throw line when she was fouled on a coast-to-coast drive and made both with 27.1 seconds left. 58-58.

With 6.5 seconds remaining, North inbounded the ball to Martin, but Craven corralled her, swiping the ball. Martin pressured Craven on the sideline but was called for a foul, putting Craven at the free throw.

And she made history.

“It’s something we’ve been looking to do the whole year,” Fisher said. “Our girls have been patient the past few years. They’ve worked really hard to get to where we are at this point. This wasn’t just this year. This was the last few years of hard work these girls have had to do, and we’ve been telling them all year that it’s our time to shine. We were able to get it done tonight.

“Somehow, we were able to get it done tonight.”