Whether or not Lambert was looking past Mill Creek is a secret they can keep to themselves, but despite a sluggish start, the Region 6-AAAAAA champions and No. 1 seeded Longhorns pulled away late for a more-dramatic-than-anticipated 70-62 win on Wednesday night in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs.
After losing a lead many moments throughout the game, Lambert went up 60-59 when Connor Mannion drilled a 3-pointer, assisted from Ross Morkem, with 1:23 to play. After the Hawks missed a wide-open layup under the rim seconds later, Andrew Melms went to the line and knocked down two free throws.
Mannion got an emphatic block on the defensive end before tipping in a Melms miss, and Lambert pulled away in the waning moments. Tempers flared late, as Mill Creek's Evan Richardson got physical with Mannion after an intentional foul with just a second remaining. Richardson tried to get into it with Lambert players after the final buzzer, prompting the crowd to boo the Hawks off the floor.
Still, Lambert head coach Scott Bracco made a point to offer praise and handshakes to as many Mill Creek players and staffers as he could after the game. For him, the tough tournament opener might have been a good thing for the Longhorns, who will now attempt to advance past the round of 16 teams after failing the previous two seasons.
“This win is simply just one step closer to our goal,” Bracco said. “We're just going to come out every day and improve. Our goal is to win a state championship and we're going to work as hard as we can to achieve our goal.”
Despite Mill Creek being a No. 4 seed and owning a losing record from its region competition, Bracco knew he'd be in for a fight.
“(Mill Creek) is a very tough team,” Bracco said. “They're from a very tough region. I'm just very proud of the way our guys did their job on the defensive end tonight. All five guys rebounded their tails off and executed on the offensive end.”
Mannion finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, while Melms added 17 points and five assists. Sophomore shooting guard Austin Deckard, playing in his first playoff game, fit well into the equation with 13 points and four boards of his own.
Mill Creek's Charles Botchway was Lambert's main antagonist. The junior guard scored 20 points, hitting eight field goals, while Richardson scored 16 and Keetone Glover added 12 points and six rebounds.
There was dispute, with one minute remaining in the game and Lambert up 60-59, over how soon the Longhorns would enter the bonus. Despite Mill Creek's contention that it had just six fouls, the official scoring had seven marked, seemingly sending Lambert to the line a foul-too-early. Melms knocked down both shots, putting more pressure on the Hawks, who hastily flung up a 3-pointer that missed badly.
Lambert led 29-28 at halftime, but trailed the Hawks 45-42 late in the third quarter—the team still searching for its rhythm. Big layups from Deckard, Melms and Tre Bell ended the quarter on a 6-0 run and gave the Longhorns a 50-45 lead, but the Hawks continued to battle back in the fourth.
Lambert played in front of a subdued setting for the first eight minutes, but the building came alive just before the end of the first half as 20 total fouls and a nifty steal-and-score from senior Harrison White charged the crowd.
Lambert will host the winner of Wednesday's game between Campbell and Tucker in the round of 16. The Longhorns will be looking for their first trip to the state quarterfinals in school history. Bracco's team has made the postseason each of the four years he's been with the school.