MILTON – As soon as the players got through the double doors that bisect Milton's gym and the visitor locker room, the celebration volume increased.
"Let's go!" rang out from a leaping Jordan McIlwain and echoed down the hall. In the locker room, a celebration commenced.
It was clear Friday night that Lambert's 95-86 victory against the Eagles – a team used to making deep playoff runs – meant a little bit more than the other games in recent weeks. Sure, county matchups are always relevant. Region wins are always necessary. But this one – Lambert's second win over Milton this season – meant more.
Just don't ask Scott Bracco, who juxtaposed with the chaos of his jovial players with the usual calm and almost comical disinterest with theatrics. It was business as usual for the Longhorns (20-3, 8-0 Region 5-7A).
"Our players get excited after every win," Bracco said. "They work hard but they also work for one another. They're a great group who deserved this win."
Andrew Melms and Matt Ganote each scored 20 points, while Melms also dished nine assists. Melms helped put the game on ice in the final few minutes, using a perfect dish to Ganote to earn an easy layup just moments after Austin Deckard (18 points) hit two free throws following a controversial technical on Milton's Alex O'Connell. O'Connell fouled out after being fouled when he apparently had choice words for an official. The Duke-bound guard finished the game with a quiet 14 points.
Melms knocked down four free throws in the final minute to finish off the Eagles (9-12, 6-2). Milton, after a slow start to the season, hoped to use Friday's game as a litmus test of its success in league play, but the Longhorns spoiled the moment. The two teams could likely meet again on the same floor in the region championship.
Milton stole momentum in front of a raucous home crowd with a furious run, forcing turnovers at will, in the third quarter. The Eagles erased an 11-point deficit and took a 60-59 lead, using two thunderous dunks to ignite the crowd. But, Lambert responded and patiently worked its way back toward the basket for layups under the rim.
The Longhorns took a 21-14 lead when Damon Stoudamire, returning from injury, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Stoudamire scored 13 off the bench, while Musa Thompson continued to showcase streaky shooting with three consecutive shots made from deep.
"I'm proud of the way the team handled pressure tonight," Bracco said.
Milton was led by Jordan Yates, who frustrated Bracco mid-game with six seemingly identical drives to the rim. He scored 25 to lead all scorers.
Lambert girls 74, Milton 24
The Lady Longhorns took care of business with a convincing win on the road, improving their record to 20-2 and 8-0 in league play.
Leah Cote came off the bench and stole the show, scoring 16 points to lead the team. M.E. Craven scored 12 along with five rebounds and three steals, while Jaleah Greene scored eight points from the post and Molly Williams added nine.