For 30 minutes of game time, Lambert could feel the pressure of advancing to the state quarterfinals dwindling away. Connor Mannion threw dunk a big dunk midway through the third quarter, Andrew Melms turned a nifty steal at midcourt into an alley-oop to Ross Morkem that brought the packed home crowd to its feet.
But in the end, it wasn't enough. Campbell pulled away from a game, deadlocked at 63-all with just over 2 minutes remaining, to take a 70-65 road victory and advance to the third round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2000, when it made the semifinals.
For Lambert, it was the third consecutive time it met its end in the second round of the Class AAAAAA bracket. With Mannion heading to the Naval Academy and Morkem prepared to move on to North Georgia, the hurt of coming so close to another program milestone was seen as soon as the final buzzer sounded, when Melms immediately covered his face with his jersey.
The scattered following of Campbell fans cheered a celebratory group of Spartans off the Lambert floor. For Longhorns coach Scott Bracco, the feeling was all too familiar.
“We've been knocking on the elite eight door for three years. We were two minutes away from busting it down,” Bracco said. “We didn't do a great job against their pressure late in the third quarter. We may have lost by the score, but we didn't lose in the effort.”
Morkem's big throwdown gave Lambert a 42-36 advantage with 4:48 left in the third, and it felt at that moment like momentum had swung to the Longhorns' side as it had all season.
But the Spartans stormed back by switching to a full-court press, forcing three consecutive turnovers.
The game went back and forth in the final period, with Morkem keeping his team alive with gritty rebounds and a game-high nine trips to the freethrow line (he made 14 of 18). But with two minutes remaining, Campbell's Lazarus Walker knocked down big free throws and the Spartans beat the press for two easy buckets by Keven Davis.
On the other end, Melms threw away a ball, then the Longhorns turned over an inbound, and the game trickled out of the home team's hands.
Melms finished with 10 assists and 5 points, while Mannion led in scoring with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Morkem finished with 20 points and seven boards.
“Our seniors have been incredible. All nine seniors have been incredible,” Bracco said. “They had the best work ethic, the commitment to this team, it was more than anyone had in the state. Every day they worked their tail off whether they did or didn't play. They had one goal in mind, and that was to win a state title, and I'm so proud of them for that.”
Musa Thompson and David Viti contributed early on for the Longhorns, both scoring a field goal and a 3-pointer, a piece, to help Lambert to a 32-30 halftime lead.
Campbell's Walker scored 20, doing most of his damage in the second half, while Mike Olmert scored 18—he had 14 in the first half. Randy McClure had 10 points and 7 rebounds for the Spartans on the low block, and Jovahn Dunham put together 10 points and four boards before getting into early foul trouble.