Lambert led the whole first quarter against North Forsyth Tuesday at home, but following a 10-0 run by the Raiders to begin the second period, the Longhorns trailed almost the entire rest of the way — until the final 8.7 seconds.
That's when an and-1 layup by Lambert's Niko Wilson lifted the hosts to a thrilling 65-63 win over rival North Forsyth.
With point guard James Tyre out with an injury, Wilson took on more of a facilitator role Tuesday. The senior finished with a career-high eight assists, but despite only having four points at the time, Wilson took matters into his own hands during the crucial possession.
“Everyone knows Niko Wilson is a 20-points-per-game scorer,” Longhorns head coach Clayton Wages said. “He’s going to be a 1,000-point scorer. That’s what he does. He was able to show another facet of his game that even when he’s not scoring that he can create for others. That’s what I’m most proud of.
“But at the end of the game, there’s no one else I’d rather have the ball in their hands. Of course, Niko came up for us big at the end and had the game-winning play.”
As Wilson drove in from the left wing, the Raiders attempted to take a charge. The 50-50 call went in favor of the Longhorns, as Wilson's shot dropped through for a one-point lead.
After Wilson tacked on the free throw, Lambert (3-1) used its two fouls to give, shortening the game to 3.9 seconds. Ninth-ranked North Forsyth (4-2) got off a 3-point attempt just before the buzzer, but it came up well short.
“We’re never out of a game because of how hard we play,” Wages said. “That was exciting. I was so proud of the kids for stepping up. Obviously, some guys are out, and other guys stepped up in new roles and embraced it.”
Throughout the opening period, the Longhorns managed to hold a slim edge. The Raiders drew within 13-11 entering the second quarter and wound up sprinting out to a 21-13 lead behind the interior dominance of Cole Kirouac.
As the 6-foot-10 junior controlled the paint on both ends, North Forsyth slowed the game down. In addition to limiting second-chance opportunities for Lambert, Kirouac dropped in 10 of his 15 first-half points in the stanza.
A pair of late 3-pointers by Brayden Turner helped send the Raiders into halftime with a healthy 34-25 edge.
“North does a good job employing their tempo and the way they want to play, which is through Cole,” Wages said of his halftime adjustments. “He’s a heckuva player and coach [David] Sokol is a great coach.
“We needed to get to playing Lambert basketball. Lambert basketball is up and down. Everybody knows that we play fast, we come get you. I knew that if we could get them running, we could find some success and try to slow [Kirouac] down a little bit.”
It certainly worked in the third quarter, when Kirouac went scoreless.
While Brogen Casey stepped up with eight points in the quarter and Turner buried another trey, North Forsyth saw Lambert rally to tie the score at 45-all. Another buzzer-beating shot — essentially the third in as many quarters – sent the Raiders into the final period up two points.
North Forsyth followed with the first six points of the fourth quarter and eventually regained its nine-point lead, but Lambert slowly chipped away.
Until closing time, the Longhorns used the three-headed monster of Keenan Gagen, Cameron Bland and Will Dopfer to rally back.
Gagen matched Kirouac with a game-high 19 points. Bland registered 18 points. Dopfer wound up with a dozen, including a key 3-point play with just under a minute remaining that trimmed Lambert's deficit to 62-61.
After shooting 3-for-11 from the free throw line across the first three quarters, the Longhorns buried 8 of 10 shots from the stripe over the final eight minutes.
Bland tied the game on a free throw before North Forsyth's Braden Mullis, who had 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter, sank a foul shot to restore the one-point cushion.
It set the stage for Wilson's heroics that should serve as a significant boost to Lambert entering its Region 6-7A opener Dec. 9 at Denmark. With no game on their schedule, the Danes were in attendance Tuesday to scout the Longhorns play a Raiders team with a similar makeup to their own.
“Hopefully, we can keep it rolling,” Wages said. “Even though it’s not a region game, county games are fun rivalries. There’s a lot of good energy, good atmosphere.
“Denmark is good. They have a 6-10 kid [Keinan McFarlande], as well. Like Cole, he can play. They’ve got some good guards. It’s probably going to be a similar dogfight for us. Hopefully, our guys are ready for it.”