They may not have been matching them shot-for-shot, but for three-and-a-half quarters on Wednesday night, the LaFayette Ramblers were hanging tough with top-ranked, unbeaten and nationally-ranked Upson-Lee.
Back-to-back 3-pointers, one by Jon Morgan, the other by Alex Kelehear, had kept the Ramblers within striking distance of the highly-favored Knights, 52-38. And with just under four minutes left to play in the game, the LaFayette fans were on their feet, doing all they could to will their heroes to a late-game rally.
But that was when Upson-Lee’s championship pedigree revealed itself and the defending Class 4A champs showed why they brought a 60-game winning streak to south Walker County.
One final decisive 18-2 run would end the game and the season for the Ramblers as the Knights – ranked No. 22 in the country by USA Today – advanced to their second straight Final Four with a 70-40 victory.
“I don’t think the score was indicative at all,” head coach Hank Peppers said. “It’s a 14-point game with about four minutes left in the fourth, but with the style we were playing – slowing it down and packing it in – we weren’t going to make up the deficit.
“We thought the best chance we had was to slow it down and keep them off the offensive boards. Even though we didn’t shoot it very well, we were very methodical on offense. On defense, we just sat back in a zone and tried to force them to beat us with contested jump shots and it sort of slowed them down for about three-and-a-half quarters.
“But when we weren’t making up the ground to get back in it, we had to try and speed it up and that’s what (Upson-Lee) is built for. That’s when they are at their best.”
In front of a rocking, sold-out, standing-room-only crowd at Dan Priest Arena, LaFayette (25-3) raced out to an 8-2 lead behind two 3-poiners from Jon Morgan that had the Ramblers supporters in a frenzy. The Knights (29-0) battled back to tie it, but a three by Kelehear and a 3-point play by Morgan pushed the lead back to six with 2:27 left in the opening quarter.
But as quickly as LaFayette grabbed the lead, Upson-Lee came right back, ending the period on a 7-0 run to take its first lead, 15-14.
The lead would change hands four more times in the first 2:30 of the second quarter, but turnovers – partially caused by the Knights’ length inside and quickness on defense – would start to take its toll on the Ramblers. Upson-Lee would close out the half on a 9-2 run with seven points coming off LaFayette giveaways.
A 3-pointer by Zyrice Scott just before the horn gave the Knights its biggest lead of the half, 28-20.
Upson-Lee kept the pressure up in the third, adding to their late first-half run. Six-foot-six, 255-pounder Travon Walker, relatively quiet in the first half, began to assert himself in the third period with a bucket in the paint and an emphatic block as the Knights would extend their advantage to 42-26, heading into the final eight minutes of play.
LaFayette would do its best to stay within arm’s reach in the first half of the fourth quarter, but once the Ramblers began to increase the tempo, Upson-Lee simply pounced.
Tye Fagan, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard and a Middle Tennessee commit, broke the Ramblers’ backs with three straight 3-pointers, much to the delight of the 200-300 Knights fans that made the 175-mile drive from Thomaston, as Upson-Lee made the final run to cap the game.
Fagan would score 13 of his game-high 23 points in the final period.
“(Upson-Lee) is a phenomenal team,” Peppers said. “We put a game plan together and executed it pretty well for the most part. That 3-pointer before halftime hurt a little, but they really got on the offensive boards in the second half and that hurt us. They just come at you in waves and they’re athletic, fast and long.
“We battled. We all hate losing, but in this situation, under these circumstances, I couldn’t be more proud of my team.”
Scott added 13 in the win, followed by Jacory Smith with 12 and Walker with 10.
Morgan hit three 3-pointers and dropped in a game-high 20 points for LaFayette to go with six rebounds. Dee Southern battled the imposing Walker all game long, scoring nine tough points and pulling down 10 tougher rebounds, while Kelehear was held to just eight points by tight defense from the Knights’ guards.
“Last year, we were a surprise team, got in the Sweet 16 and got people taking about us,” Peppers explained. “This year, we were expected to go to state and compete for a region title. We won the region and hosted three rounds of the state tournament. We got to the Elite Eight and now we’re going to bring back 90-95 percent of the team next year. We’re in the conversation now as one of the top teams coming back and we’re going to push ourselves to be even better.”
It was the final game for seniors Stone Graham and Jon Morgan and Peppers said the duo would be missed,
“Our two seniors, they are what it’s all about,” he continued. “We’re very proud of both of them and I think their best basketball is ahead of both of them.
“Things are moving in the right direction here. The kids were motivated in the locker room after the game. They didn’t think they were very far off from one of the top teams in the nation and the state, so if we get a little bit better and tighten up a few things up, we’re going to be right there (next year).”