LaFayette Ramblers

Despite having the second-fewest losses and the second-best winning percentage of any team in the entire classification, the LaFayette Ramblers have not been listed in any Class 4A Top 10 poll all season long.

On Thursday, the Orange-and-Black took matters into their own hands.

For the first time since the GHSA expanded the state tournament brackets to 32 teams, LaFayette is in the Elite Eight after a thrilling 53-51 victory over Region 8 runner-up Jefferson in front of an electric, standing-room-only crowd at Dan Priest Gymnasium.

Down by one with less than 30 seconds to play, junior Dee Southern would score the game's final three points and came up with perhaps the biggest rebound of his career to help send the Ramblers (25-2) into the state quarterfinals next week.

"This is great. It's a huge thing for us," said Southern, who scored seven of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to go with 14 rebounds. "People have been doubting us, saying we wouldn't get this far, but we've worked our tails off to get this far."

"This means more than I can put into words," head coach Hank Peppers said. "I couldn't be more proud of them for the resiliency they showed. Jefferson is a really good team. They're very athletic and they stay on you from the start (of the game) to the finish. We had to grind it out and had some things go against us down the stretch, but we made a couple of sweet plays at the end to finish it.

"Tonight was a special game to be a part of as a coach, player or a LaFayette fan."

Three times during the game, the Ramblers took leads of seven or more points, but each time the Dragons (18-11) would find a way to respond.

LaFayette led 9-2 early, only to see Jefferson answer with an 8-0 run before the Ramblers were able to forge a 14-10 lead at the end of the period. The Ramblers would stretch it out their advantage to 21-12 in the opening two minutes of the second quarter, but managed just three points the rest of the half and went into halftime knotted at 24.

The nip-and-tuck affair would continue in the second half with the Dragons rallying to take a 37-35 lead into the fourth quarter and they would enjoy their biggest lead of the night, 40-36, with just under seven minutes left in the game.

Alex Kelehear, held to just five points in the first three periods by some tight man-to-man defense, hit back-to-back 3-pointers just 20 seconds apart to put the Ramblers back in front, 42-41. The two long-range shots would jump-start what would become a 14-3 run that put the home team ahead 50-43 with 1:53 left and had LaFayette fans ready to celebrate.

Jefferson, however, was determined not to let it happen.

Jasper Gibson connected on a 3-pointer to cut into the lead and the Dragons pulled to within 50-48 on a bucket with 1:20 remaining. Both teams would turn the ball over on their next possessions, but coming out of a timeout, Kam Robinson silenced the pro-LaFayette crowd with a 3-pointer that his team a 51-50 lead with 37 seconds left to play.

But the Ramblers refused to panic. Senior Jon Morgan, who missed nearly all the first half with early foul trouble, calmly dribbled upcourt and knifed toward the lane before dishing off a nifty pass to Southern for the go-ahead lay-up with 24 seconds left.

The Dragons had two good looks to retake the lead, but missed twice at the rim before Southern crashed the boards to grab the huge defensive rebound and draw a foul with 8.6 seconds to go.

Southern made the first shot, but rimmed out the second, leaving the Dragons one final opportunity to tie or win the game. However, air tight defense by the Ramblers forced Jefferson's Daniel Parker to rush a high, arcing 3-point attempt from the wing at the buzzer, which came up short.

The miss set off an eruption in the stands and on the floor as LaFayette players, coaches and fans celebrated the victory.

"We were tied at halftime and Jon had only played two minutes, so I felt okay, knowing we were going to get him back (in the second half)," Peppers said. "We also didn't shoot well at all that first half, but I believe in these guys. I knew that if we just kept attacking, and as long as we were playing defense and rebounding, that the shots were going to eventually go in."

Kelehear had 11 of his 16 points in the fourth to go with four rebounds. Andrew Pendergrass had seven points and six boards, while Morgan added six points and six rebounds. Tyrese Marsh added four points and four rebounds, while Rylan Russell accounted for the Ramblers' other point.

Gibson had a team-high 15 for Jefferson, followed by Parker and Jacob Radaker with 10 each.

The GHSA conducted a universal coin flip early on Thursday to determine host schools in the event of quarterfinal match-ups involving teams with the same seeding. As a result, LaFayette will back at home in the third round and will host Upson-Lee, the Region 2 champion, who scored a 52-44 win over Region 4 runner-up Salem on Thursday.

The Knights from Thomaston (28-0) are ranked No. 1, are the defending Class 4A state champions and are currently riding a 60-game winning streak. They are an incredible 83-4 over the past three seasons.

"That's why you work so hard, so you can get to a point where you can play a great team like Upson-Lee," Peppers added. "You work hard to put yourself in this type of position because I know there are a lot of other teams out there that would like to swap places."