Connor Mannion had just grabbed the game’s biggest rebound and been fouled with Lambert up by two and 13 seconds left in overtime.
As he walked to the foul line, he told himself these were the same free throws he shoots every day in practice.
“Same thing,” Mannion said. “Just like those.”
Mannion sank both, Artese Gatlin forced a turnover on the ensuing possession and Lambert survived with a 55-50 victory against Cherokee on Thursday at home in the first round of the Class AAAAAA tournament.
The Longhorns (24-5) advance to play Hillgrove, a 62-52 winner over Langston Hughes, on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“That was a tough one,” Lambert coach Scott Bracco said. “That was a very good team, well-coached team, very disciplined. Probably the most disciplined team we’ve played all year. [Cherokee coach] Roger [Kvam] does an outstanding job.”
For Lambert, it was a familiar feeling of well-earned relief. The breaks off the court have not gone its way the past few weeks, for there was another starter on the Longhorns’ bench dressed in warm-ups, unavailable at the most dire moment of the season. This time it was Ross Morkem, Lambert’s junior forward, who contracted mono and is out for the remainder of the state tournament – the season, for that matter – added to the casualties along with Tanner Hall (mono) and Jake Morris (ankle). Yet, the breaks had seemed to favor Lambert on the court throughout a dramatic run through the Region 6-AAAAAA tournament.
For a moment Thursday, the Longhorns seemed out of breaks. Lambert had led by as many as nine in the third quarter only to let Cherokee (17-12) come back. The Longhorns had a chance to take the last shot for the win, but Cherokee smothered guard Patrick Noble after he caught the inbounds pass, trapping him near the Lambert bench, and the Longhorns never got a shot off. Gatlin (10 points) started off overtime with a 3 that sparked a Lambert 7-0 run, but Cherokee responded, trimming the lead to 52-50 and forcing a Longhorns turnover with 24.5 seconds left to give the Warriors a chance to tie or take the lead.
Cherokee went for the tie, but Jeremiah Gill (11 points) missed a driving layup that Mannion grabbed.
It had to be Mannion on Thursday. Morkem’s absence left a void of rebounding and scoring in the frontcourt that Lambert had come to rely on this season. So when Lambert trailed 13-5 in the second quarter, Mannion hit a short jump shot off an inbounds pass to tie the game at 13. He scored eight points in the third quarter.
When Cherokee cut Lambert’s nine-point third quarter lead down to 37-36 to start the fourth, Mannion followed with a resounding dunk. When Cherokee cut the lead to one again, Mannion responded with a baseline layup.
Mannion finished with a game-high 21 points and had five rebounds.
“I knew I had a bigger role tonight because we were missing a lot,” Mannion said. “I had to rebound more and play more inside.”
“Connor really stepped up tonight,” Bracco said. “He played really well. He attacked the basket tonight really well and did a great job on the boards.”
Noble added 10 points for the Longhorns. Andrew Melms scored eight points and dished out six assists. Trevon McSwain started in Morkem’s place and had six points and six rebounds despite early foul trouble.
“For us, it was a full team effort,” Bracco said. “We’re a complete basketball team. The guys played great defense tonight. They stuck to the game plan, which was huge, and I’m extremely proud of this team.”