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LaGrange still alive for four-peat

By Kevin Eckleberry

kevin.eckleberry@lagrangenews.com

The quest for a four-peat is alive and well.

The LaGrange Grangers outlasted Chapel Hill 62-59 on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals of the Region 5-AAAA tournament.

If LaGrange beats Cartersville on Friday, it will play either Troup or Sandy Creek on Saturday with a chance to win a fourth consecutive region championship.

Whatever happens this weekend, the Grangers are guaranteed a spot in the state tournament, and that was far from a certain thing coming into the season.

LaGrange lost eight seniors from last season’s team, and most of them are playing college basketball.

Despite that enormous roster turnover, LaGrange head coach Mark Veal believed the program would continue to thrive, and he’s been proven right over the past few months.

With Wednesday’s win, the Grangers improved to 17-9, and they’re in the state tournament for the 10th straight year.

“I think a lot of people under-estimated our program this year,” said Veal, who is in his third season as the Grangers’ head coach. “There was a lot of talk about how when (Derieko Smith and LaPerion Perry) graduated we’d fall off. They’re ultra-talented, and the surrounding cast was ultra-talented. But I’m proud of our five seniors that stuck around, and waited, and didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. Our five seniors stuck it out and played well tonight, and they have all year.”

Two of those seniors, Bo Russell and Jay Benton, led LaGrange with 11 points apiece, and Earley Sanders provided a strong inside presence and scored nine points.

Seinor Covan Huzzie made two 3-pointers and scored eight points, and Jordan Ogletree, senior Daz Williams and Vondez Taylor had six points apiece.

The Grangers appeared to be in control in the fourth quarter thanks to a dynamic series of plays from Russell. Russell had a break-away dunk at the end of the third quarter to give the Grangers a 46-35 lead.

Russell had two more dunks early in the fourth quarter, and LaGrange was flying high with a 13-point lead.

After the Panthers got within six, another Russell dunk with 2:10 to play gave the Grangers a 59-51 lead.

With 1:44 left, Russell scored and was fouled, and he made the free throw to put the Panthers in a 62-53 hole.

Chapel Hill wasn’t done.

Tomie Anderson hit a 3-pointer with 50 seconds remaining to get the Panthers within four, and a K.J. Burton free throw made it a three-point game with 21 seconds left.

Chapel Hill got the ball back following a turnover with an opportunity to tie it with a 3-pointer.

After a long-distance shot missed, the ball went off a LaGrange player and out of bounds with less than a second remaining.

The Panthers got a 3-pointer away at the buzzer, but it fell harmlessly off the rim, and the Grangers walked away with the narrow win.

“I thought we did some good things tonight, I just didn’t think we finished that last minute well,” Veal said. “I thought our guys had intensity tonight, and they played well.”

The Grangers led 15-9 after the first quarter, and they were ahead 33-23 at the half.

The Panthers scored the first seven points of the third quarter to get within three, but LaGrange regained control, and it had a double-digit lead on Russell’s dunk right before the buzzer.

Twice in the fourth quarter the Grangers had a 13-point lead, but the Panthers scored 24 points in the final eight minutes to make it interesting.

Anderson made five 3-pointers and led Chapel Hill with 15 points, and Burton added 13 points.

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