There is still a lot of basketball to be played in the next two months leading up to the Region 6-AAAA tournament, but two games into the region slate and the LaFayette Ramblers are certainly looking like the team to beat.
After a double-digit victory on the road at Heritage this past Friday night, No. 10-ranked LaFayette welcomed the Northwest Whitfield Bruins to Dan Priest Gymnasium on Tuesday night in the first meeting between the two schools since the Ramblers beat the Bruins in last year's region tournament title game.
And the result was pretty much the same as that meeting some 10 months ago.
LaFayette found its shooting range in the third quarter, erupting for 27 points in the period and going on to a 71-53 win as they improved to 6-0 overall and 2-0 in region play.
The Ramblers led by just four points at halftime, but connected on six 3-pointers in the third quarter, three off the fingertips of Alex Kelehear, who ended the night with a game-high 23 points. The All-State senior guard also added nine rebounds and dished out five assists.
While it was a big early-season win, LaFayette head coach Hank Peppers said his team can't afford to look ahead or look past anyone in the region.
"Any team in our region can beat any other team, so you always have to be ready," he said. "It's a really skilled region, so we have to have tunnel vision, take it one game at a time and just keep working."
LaFayette led 18-13 after the first eight minutes of play, thanks in part to an early 10-0 run. The Ramblers' lead was 28-24 at intermission, though they could have easily gone into the locker room trailing had it not been for a bizarre five-point swing in the final 10 seconds of the half. The Bruins had a 3-pointer waved off as a timeout was called by their coach prior to the shot and Northwest was hit for a technical foul after starting play with six players on the floor coming out of the timeout.
Kelehear stepped to the line and drained both free shots and Northwest was lucky to avoid even more disaster as a late 3-point attempt by LaFayette's Rylan Russell rimmed out.
But the Bruins could not avoid the onslaught that LaFayette delivered in the third quarter.
Andrew Pendergrass hit a pair of threes in the first two minutes of the period before Kelehear and Russell both connected from long distance. Northwest would finally get a bucket to break the drought, but Kelehear would bury a cold-blooded trey from NBA range with 4:28 left in the quarter and LaFayette's lead would quickly balloon to 45-30.
The Ramblers would take a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter, but they would score the first six points of the period as Kelehear's final 3-ball of the night with 6:07 to play stretched the lead out to 20. The benches would be emptied shortly thereafter.
"It was a big home game with a big crowd and we were a little on our heels in the first half," Peppers explained. "We really took a lot of bad shots in that first half, but we settled down in the third quarter and attacked the press a little more. We got a lot better shot attempts and a lot of times, when you get better shot attempts, making them takes care of itself."
Dee Southern, who was honored before the game for his 500th career rebound, finished with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double. Pendergrass added 15 points and eight rebounds. Tyrese Marsh had seven points to go with five boards and nine assists and Russell collected five points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Chris Cunningham led the Bruins with 20 points.
The first game of the night, the Lady Bruins picked up the region win, but not before a much tougher-than-expected test against a much-improved Lady Rambler team.
Northwest would see LaFayette (4-2, 0-2) chop its lead down to just eight points with four minutes left to play, but the Lady Bruins would pull away in the final two minutes to score a 73-57 victory.
Freshman Mykeria Johnson had a big night with 19 points and 11 rebounds. LaTyah Barber had 12 points and six rebounds, while Marquila Howell had seven points to go with 10 rebounds and four steals. Nicky Yancy finished with nine points. Megan Wilson added eight points and Alyssa Estus chipped in with two points.
Northwest star Jada Griffin had 34 points in the win, while Tionna Baker had 17.
LaFayette will be back at home this Friday night to face Pickens in a doubleheader that will start at 7 p.m.