With Saturday’s impressive 53-49 victory over Fayette County in the Region 5-AAAA championship game, the Grangers (21-6) carry a seven-game winning streak into the state tournament, and they’ll look to keep things rolling along when they host Madison County in a first-round game on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
The Grangers lost three out of four games earlier in the season, including a couple of games where they managed just 39 points, but those struggles are a distant memory now.
“We kind of hit a low point,” LaGrange head coach Mike Pauley said. “We threw out some challenges, asked the kids to do some things. The kids had a meeting, and they said, hey coach, we’re going to do this together, all of us. And when the kids pulled together, and the coaching staff, we pulled together with them and we all met some common ground, at that point we just started going back the other way,”
The turnaround began with a 51-35 victory at Fayette County on Feb. 1, and the Grangers haven’t looked back since.
“The next thing you know our team work really gets good, and people were worried less about themselves and more about the team. Things got easier,” Pauley said. “ We’re fighting in every game, and we’re on a run.”
The Grangers finished the regular season as the region’s number two seed, and they advanced to the championship game with a victory over Shaw on Friday.
That set up a third meeting with Fayette County, which finished tied with LaGrange and Shaw for second in the region with a 10-4 record.
Fayette County and LaGrange each won once during the regular season, and Saturday’s game wasn’t decided until the closing seconds.
The Tigers were down by three with a chance to tie it with moments left in the game, but a couple of 3-point attempts were off the mark, and Drew Moody finally clinched the victory when he made a free throw with less than a second left.
“The big reason (we won) was we played solid defenses on their shooters, and we moved the ball. We were patient,” said LaGrange’s Kwame Brown, who led a balanced scoring attack with 12 points. “All the games we lost this year is because it was one pass and shot, quick shots. As long as we move the ball and play solid defense, we’re real hard to beat.”
Nothing came easily Saturday night.
It was close the whole way, with neither team able to build much of an advantage.
The Grangers led 16-13 after the first period, and it was tied 28-28 at the half.
Neither team led by more than three points in the third quarter, and the Grangers took a 39-37 lead into the final period.
The Grangers took their biggest lead of the game with 3:40 left when Baron Smith made two free throws to put the Tigers in a 45-40 hole.
After the Tigers got within two with 1:38 remaining, the Grangers made five free throws to go up 51-45 with 29 seconds remaining.
The Tigers weren’t done.
Clark Minnifield made one free throw to get the Tigers within four, and after he missed the second free throw, Kelvin King pulled down the rebound, and he scored and was fouled.
King completed the three-point play to bring his team within two with 18 seconds left.
Brown was fouled after catching the inbounds pass, and he made one of two free-throw attempts to make it a three-point game.
The Tigers got a couple of nice looks at the basket, but they couldn’t get a 3-pointer to fall, ending their hopes of winning the championship.
The Grangers didn’t make a shot from the field after Don Leak scored with 5:42 remaining, but they were solid from the free-throw line, and they came up with some huge defensive spots down the stretch.
“Kwame hit some big shots, hit some big free throws. And Baron (Smith) hit some big shots,” said senior guard Justyn Olson. “And Don, defense was crazy. It feels like he has 20 blocks a game.”
Smith added 10 points for the Grangers, Leak scored nine, and Demarcus Turnbough scored eight.
“Tonight, we were juggling kids in and out and around, and just found the right chemistry of kids,” Pauley said. “And the kids were great with it.”