JOHNS CREEK – Lambert senior guard Artese Gatlin had seen this before. With 1 minute 50 seconds left in the game, Gatlin had anticipated a pass by an Alpharetta guard trapped near the sideline toward the middle of the court, swiped it and sprinted for a game-tying layup. Gatlin cataloged the play in his mind.
So as Alpharetta whipped passes around the court, milking the clock down to its final moments – one minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds – Gatlin saw it again: the Raiders’ guard crossed midcourt, dribbled to his right, and Lambert trapped him. Gatlin sensed that his man was cutting down the middle of the court to a gap in Lambert’s defense. Here it was.
“I saw it in my mind,” Gatlin said. “I was like, ‘I see this pass coming.’”
It did, and again, Gatlin cut it off, snatched it and burst toward the basket for a layup with 8.5 seconds left for the eventual game-winner in Lambert’s 58-56 victory against Alpharetta on Saturday at Chattahoochee High School in the Region 6-AAAAAA finals.
Alpharetta (23-5) got one last chance to tie the game or win it with 1.1 seconds left, but Elum Nwuke’s wide-open 3-pointer bounced harmlessly off the backboard.
The Longhorns (23-5) stormed the court to celebrate their first region championship in program history.
“This feels really sweet,” Lambert head coach Scott Bracco said. “We achieved one of our goals this year. Hard work pays off. I’m just proud of these guys.”
“We played our hearts out,” Gatlin said. “We gave it everything we had, and it showed out there.”
Lambert entered Saturday motivated but shorthanded. Motivated, perhaps, by a three-game losing streak to Alpharetta that included an overtime loss in last season’s region championship and two losses by a combined seven points during the regular season. Shorthanded, suddenly, because senior guard Jake Morris was on crutches with an ankle injury suffered in the Longhorn’s region semifinal victory Friday against Centennial.
Of course, all season, Lambert has done it by committee in adherence to Bracco’s system, utilizing 10 to 12 players with five averaging double figures in scoring. When leading scorer and junior standout Tanner Hall contracted mononucleosis before the start of the region tournament, Lambert believed little adjustment was necessary to offset his absence. Same for the news of Morris’ injury. Roles might be tweaked, but the game plan remained the same.
“We’re a complete basketball team,” Bracco said. “This is a total team effort.”
Sophomore point guard Andrew Melms led the effort, scoring a team-high 18. Ross Morkem had 13 points, all after the first quarter. Gatlin and Patrick Noble added eight points apiece, all but three of which came in the second half. Connor Mannion scored all of his seven points in the first half, while forward Trevon McSwain had arguably his most complete game of the season with six points and six rebounds, including several that led to crucial second-chance points.
Each time Alpharetta threatened to run away with the game, the group responded. When Lambert trailed 28-20 midway through the second quarter, Mannion drilled a transition 3-pointer to spark a 10-0 run to end the half and give the Longhorns a 30-28 lead. When Alpharetta hit another 3, one of its nine on the night, to take a 51-42 lead to start the fourth quarter, Melms ended a 7-0 run with a leaning midrange jump shot to cut the lead to 51-49.
“Anyone can step up on any given night,” Gatlin said. “We know that.”
Lately, it’s been Gatlin’s turn to step up in the most theatrical moments of games. It was Gatlin who hit the eventual game-winning 3-pointer against Centennial on Friday with 14 seconds left. It was Gatlin whose steal-and-layup tied the game at 56-56 on Saturday with 1:50 left. And with the clock winding down, Gatlin seized the moment again.
But it could’ve been anyone for Lambert. It could’ve been Melms, the tournament MVP. It could’ve been Morkem, who scored six straight points for Lambert at one point in the third quarter. It could’ve been Noble, who made a driving floater to tie the game at 40 with 2:49 left in the third.
The Longhorns didn’t care who it was Saturday night. They only cared about the result.
“It’s unbelievable to get that trophy,” Melms said. “We’ve been waiting a year for this moment, and it’s unbelievable.”
Lambert 58, Alpharetta 56
Lambert 15 15 12 16_58
Alpharetta 15 13 20 8_56
Lambert: Melms 18, Morkem 13, Gatlin 8, Noble 8, Mannion 7, McSwain 6.
Alpharetta: James 21, Cacok 11, Gamble 6, Winston 6, Eze 5, Carriere 3, Jones 2, Nwuke 2.