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Basketball: Lambert girls pull through against Hillgrove to reach state quarterfinals
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Summer Edwards stood bent over with her hands on her knees, sucking in as much air as she could before being thrown back into the fire.

This was while Lady Longhorns interim head coach Carolyn Whitney was taking the team through a timeout, one she called to save Lambert from a 10-second backcourt violation towards the end of the second quarter of its state tournament game against Hillgrove. Edwards had just been swarmed by the Hawks’ full-court press, and it wasn’t the first time.

“We haven’t played a team like that since North (Forsyth),” Edwards said. “It was just really hard. We were working really hard, and it was hard to catch my breath.”

She never completely caved in, though, and neither did Lambert. The Lady Longhorns beat Hillgrove 55-50 on Wednesday night at home, putting the Hawks (17-11) away for the second time this year and advancing to the state quarterfinals, where they will face Collins Hill.

Lambert’s first matchup against Hillgrove, in the Deep South Classic in December, was another close call, with the Lady Longhorns (26-2) coming away with a 53-50 win. Apart from the close margins, though, the games shared few commonalities.

Lambert had to overcome a double-digit deficit for that win, but on Wednesday, the Lady Longhorns took a lead midway through the second quarter and kept it until the end of the game.

It wasn’t without significant stress. Hillgrove pressured the ballhandler hard in both full-court and half-court situations, and while that led to easy buckets for Lambert when it made smart cuts and found passing lanes, it also led to plenty of turnovers and chaotic scrums for loose balls.

“We were thinking, ‘We need to complete passes and then wait until they make a mistake,’” Whitney said. “Make them work on defense, wait until they make a mistake and then get a high-percentage shot. That’s what we were looking for the entire game.”

The Lady Longhorns’ size advantage and the corresponding edge in rebounding helped them hold the lead, as they pulled down plentiful misses on both defense and offense. Junior M.E. Craven was particularly effective down low. She led all scorers with 19 points and hit four free throws in the fourth quarter to help Lambert withstand a late Hillgrove push that narrowed the margin to as little as three with just over a minute to play.

Edwards was double-teamed and called for a travel on the ensuing inbounds, giving the Hawks the ball and a chance to tie, but Lambert’s defense held, with senior Mandy Clarke notching a huge block.

The game ended with Edwards holding the ball. She snagged an errant pass, let the clock run down and was still grasping the ball as she made her way towards the bench to be mobbed by her teammates.

“I just knew the entire time: We’re all going to push through the pain,” Edwards said. “… At the very end, I always know that we will pull through.”