By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – It’s a three-peat.
The LaGrange Grangers, facing a talented Sandy Creek team on their home floor in the championship game of the Region 5-AAAA tournament on Saturday night, got a go-ahead 3-pointer from Bo Russell with less than a minute remaining in overtime, and they finished the game on a 7-0 run to take a 65-58 victory.
The Grangers (24-3) have now won three consecutive region titles, and they’ll head into the state tournament as one of the teams to beat.
“We’re extremely proud,” said Mark Veal, LaGrange’s second-year head coach. “We don’t know what the future holds. We’ve got to play hopefully five more games, but we don’t know. We’re just going to take it one game at a time.”
LaGrange and Sandy Creek played twice during the regular season, and they each won once.
Fortunately for the Grangers, Saturday’s game was at home, and they’re almost unbeatable there.
LaGrange’s only home loss this season came against an unbeaten Upson-Lee team, and it beat Sandy Creek 68-64 at home in January.
With a typically boisterous student section offering its support, LaGrange found a way once again to dispatch an extremely talented Sandy Creek team that has been ranked as high as second this season.
“We had to believe,” LaGrange senior guard LaPerion Perry said. “We believed, and we wanted it.”
Perry led all scorers with 21 points, and he had eight points in the fourth quarter.
Senior post player Bryan Fanning had a monster second half when he scored all 14 of his points, and Russell scored 12 points, including six points in overtime.
Kenan Gray added nine points, and he made a massive impact inside while snagging rebounds and blocking shots.
Jarious Freeman added seven points, although his main contribution may have been handling the ball and helping beat Sandy Creek’s pressure defense.
Senior guard Gabe Duckett didn’t score, but he still made a sizeable impact on the game with his defensive excellence.
Throughout the season, Veal has given Duckett the assignment of guarding the opposition’s top scorer, and that was the case again Saturday.
“Gabe, he’s done such a phenomenal job defensively,” Veal said. “We give him the top defensive assignment every game, and he hasn’t complained about scoring or anything. That’s a big attribute for us.”
Sandy Creek had a chance to win it in regulation.
The Patriots got two potential game-winning shots away in the final four seconds of the fourth quarter, but neither one of them found the mark, so it was on to overtime.
The Patriots held the ball for the first two minutes of overtime, and Eric Williams scored to give the visiting team a 58-56 lead.
The Grangers needed just 14 seconds to tie it, with Russell scoring with 1:46 remaining to make it a 58-58 game.
After a Sandy Creek miss, LaGrange got the ball back with an opportunity to take the lead.
Russell took a pass in the corner, and he didn’t hesitate.
His 3-point attempt was pure, and it gave the Grangers a 61-58 lead with 44 seconds remaining.
“I was just feeling it,” Russell said. “Coach said, if you’ve got a shot take it, and I had a shot. When I shot it, I just knew I would make it.”
The Grangers kept the lead the rest of the way, so Russell’s 3-pointer was the game-winner.
“It’s very special,” Russell said. “All my life, I’ve never hit a game-winning shot.”
After another Sandy Creek miss, Gray grabbed the rebound with 26 seconds left, and he was immediately fouled.
Gray made the first free throw and missed the second, but Perry grabbed the offensive rebound, so the Grangers maintained possession.
With 16 seconds left, Russell made one-of-two attempts from the line, and LaGrange had a 63-58 lead.
Any hope the Patriots had ended when they missed and the Grangers got the rebound, and Perry capped the scoring by making two free throws with seven seconds left.
The Grangers were region champions once again.
“It felt good,” Perry said. “We’ve been champions three years straight.”
In the game’s early stages, the Grangers struggled to find their shot, and they were down 15-10 after the first quarter.
With less than three minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Grangers only had 14 points and they were trailing by seven points, but they closed the first half strong and were down 27-23 heading to the break.
It remained tight in the third quarter, and the Patriots had a slim 38-37 lead heading to the final eight minutes.
It was back-and-forth in the fourth quarter, and when Perry drilled a 3-pointer with 1:40 remaining, LaGrange had a 54-51 lead.
After Sandy Creek pulled even, Perry drove to the basket and scored with 1:11 left, and LaGrange had the lead once again.
The Patriots tied it with 30 seconds left, and they got the ball back with 20 seconds remaining after the Grangers missed a free throw.
The Patriots held the ball almost to the end before shooting, and during a fight for the rebound after the missed shot, the clock didn’t start.
After some discussion, the officials ruled that the ball belonged to the Patriots, and they had one second left.
The Patriots got a shot away close to the basket as time expired, but it didn’t fall.