LaFayette Ramblers

Down 20-8 after the first quarter. Playing in a swelteringly hot gymnasium. Facing both an outstanding opponent and a large, loud and mostly hostile crowd. On the road. With a region championship hanging in the balance.

A lesser team probably would have folded, but the LaFayette Ramblers are not a lesser team.

Showing their championship pedigree, earned over the past four-plus years of playing in big-time basketball games, LaFayette tied the game in the second quarter, took the lead for good in the third and finally put away homestanding Sonoraville, 58-48, the claim the 6-AAA tournament title on Saturday night.

"I was proud of our resolve," head coach Hank Peppers said of his team's third region title in the past four seasons. "These type of games are like roller coasters and, more often than not, the teams that are more level and steady are the ones that win the games."

Not only was it the second straight region championship for the Ramblers, who won 6-AAAA last year before dropping down a classification, it marked the first time in LaFayette's long and storied basketball history that the program had ever won region titles in back-to-back years.

"The defense, the effort...I couldn't be more proud," Peppers added, "especially being the first ever back-to-back regions boys' championships (for the program)."

The second-seeded Phoenix led 8-5 midway through the first quarter, but went on a 12-3 run to end the period as bad memories of a 65-40 loss on Jan. 18 in the building, aptly referred to as "The Furnace", likely came flooding back to the minds of the LaFayette fans who made the drive to Gordon County for the night's title tilt.

But if that humiliating defeat was in the minds of the Rambler players themselves, they certainly refused to show it.

Three-pointers by DeCameron Porter and Junior Barber were part of a 12-2 start to the second quarter that cut Sonoraville's lead down to 22-20 with two minutes left before halftime and the top-seeded Ramblers would eventually go into intermission down a bucket at 27-25.

"Number one, Sonoraville's got a great team and we want to give them all the respect," Peppers explained. "Playing on the road and on their home floor for the region championship, we knew we were going to get their best shot. But I was so proud of the way we weathered the storm. When we went into halftime just down two after falling behind 20-8 in the first quarter, I knew we were in good shape."

Porter knocked down a 3-pointer to give LaFayette its first lead, 32-31, with 5:39 left in the third period. The Ramblers slowly stretched out their advantage to 43-37 by the end of the quarter, but star guard Orry Darnell got the Phoenix back to within three points of lead, 45-42 with 5:46 remaining in the contest.

Porter answered with a basket coming out of a time-out and later came up big on the defensive end to block a Darnell lay-up attempt with four minutes to play. However, Darnell drew a foul on a 3-point shot with 2:40 remaining and knocked down all three free shots, cutting LaFayette's lead back down to three, 48-45.

Sonoraville then begin full-court pressure for the first time in the game and had some early success as LaFayette had to use a couple of time-outs to maintain possession. However, the Ramblers finally broke the press and did so in emphatic fashion as Porter's rim-rocking slam with 2:09 to play boosted the lead back to five.

Darnell came back with a basket and a Murray Somers free throw with 1:17 to play again made it a one-possession game at 50-48. But LaFayette broke the press again and Porter would draw a foul with 1:10 to go. The Ramblers' lone senior hit both free throws put his team back up by four and LaFayette got a welcome gift as the Phoenix threw the ball away on their next possession.

Led by point guard Jaylon Ramsey, LaFayette was able to dribble away nearly 30 seconds off the clock before finding Zach Barrett in the lane for a short jumper off the glass to make it a 54-48 game with 36 seconds to go. Porter then grabbed a big defensive rebound after Sonoraville missed a 3-pointer on its ensuing possession.

Forced to foul, the Phoenix put Barber on the line with 23 seconds to play. The junior missed the front end of the 1-and-1, but outhustled four Phoenix defenders to the ball to get his own rebound. He drew another foul with 20.3 seconds left and made both shots as the Rambler Nation began to sense the championship.

Darnell would come up short on a last-gasp 3-point attempt for the Phoenix and Hadaway knocked down a pair of free throws with 10.7 seconds left to account for the final points of the night.

Pepper said one of the keys to the victory was his team's lack of panic in the early part of the game.

"We've played in front of big crowds before and against some really high level teams, so there's no substitute for experience. Plus, we really got on the boards. We got outrebounded in the first quarter, but we really kind of dominated the rest of the way and that was a key, too."

Porter had 26 points, giving him 56 during the two games he played in the tournament, while Hadaway followed up Friday night's 25-point performance with 20 more on Saturday. Barber battled through some early foul trouble to finish with seven points, while three from Ramsey and two each by Barrett and Jordan Kennerly rounded out the scoring.

Darnell led all scorers with 27 points for the Phoenix.

LaFayette boys 82, LFO 61

Up by six points at the end of the first quarter, the Ramblers outscored the fourth-seeded Warriors, 19-5, in the second stanza and cruised to a victory over the Warriors in a tournament semifinal.

Porter scored 30 points and Hadway picked up 25 points in the victory. Barrett scored a season-high 18, while six points from Ramsey and three by Barber rounded out the scoring.

LaFayette (20-1) will open the Class AAA state tournament next week at home against North Hall (11-12), the No. 4 seed from Region 7, while Sonoraville (20-4) will also be at home to take on Region 7 No. 3 seed Cherokee Bluff (15-11).

Peppers added that winning the region was a total and complete team effort, from the starters to the bench players to the assistant coaches and even to his former coach and mentor, Tommy Swanson, who was on hand to see the Ramblers claim the title.

"It takes everybody being on the same page," he added. "When everybody is pulling in the same direction you go a lot further. I'm grateful for the experience, but I'm also grateful for my players, my assistants and grateful for LaFayette High School. They really support boys' basketball. The student section really gets behind us and that really fuels us."

Scott Herpst is sports editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

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