MACON — Mekala Fuller grabbed in a rebound and a smile spread across her face as she hugged the ball to her chest to draw one last foul.
The Lanier senior covered her face as she walked to the free-throw line, the magnitude of the moment sinking in.
The upstart Longhorns knocked off defending champion Lovejoy 52-45 to win the school’s first team state title in any sport Saturday at the Macon Centreplex.
“It means so much,” said Fuller, one of six seniors on the team. “We’ve been working for this, to say we won a state championship before we graduate. And it finally came true. I’m just so happy.”
Lanier (29-3) was an underdog from the start of the season and relished the role.
“It motivated us,” Fuller said. “All we kept thinking about was our doubters. We just had to.”
The Longhorns rolled in the first two rounds of the Class AAAAAA tournament and punched their ticket to the final with an upset of Forest Park. Lanier overcame a nine-point third-quarter deficit in the semifinals and needed that no-quit attitude again against Lovejoy.
“Even though we were down, we just kept saying, ‘We’ve got this,’” Fuller said. “We motivated each other.”
Lovejoy, riding a 45-game winning streak against in-state teams, led by eight late in the third quarter and was up 37-31 at the start of the fourth.
Nala Lawrence opened the final quarter with a 3-pointer from the corner and fellow senior Kalen Surles took over from there.
Surles went coast-to-coast on a turnover and then drained a jumper to finally wrest the lead away from Lovejoy.
The Wildcats (29-4) briefly regained the lead, but Fuller found Surles in the corner and the 5-11 guard hammered down a 3-pointer to tie the game 41-41.
A dish from Surles set up Lizzie Campbell inside and gave Lanier the lead for good with under three minutes to play.
“I just love playing with her,” a grinning Fuller said of Surles. “I tell her, ‘K, you gotta take your (shots). You’re better than anyone out there.’ She’s gotta do what she do for us to win. I think she did that. She wanted it.”
The final minutes were tense, in part because the Longhorns didn’t seal the deal at the free-throw line. But Lovejoy kept throwing up long outside chances and Lanier kept coming down with the crucial rebounds to force fouls.
“There are no words to describe the feeling,” said Tim Slater, the program’s third head coach in as many years.
The emotional breaks in his voice painted a clear picture.
“The back story, my girls, my seniors, and all they’ve been through — to see that right there (at the buzzer) is about as special a moment as I’ve experienced in sports,” Slater said. “They just play for each other and they play hard. They’re a special group.”
Clutch 3-point shooting kept Lanier in striking distance for three quarters. The Longhorns shot 50 percent from behind the arc in the game, with Lawrence leading the way. The 5-foot-5 guard finished with 10 points and was the only Lanier player in double figures.
“That is a testament to our girls, who they are and what they’re capable of and how they handle adversity,” Slater said. “I know when they graduate, those seniors are going to be successful because no matter what life throws at them, they’re not going to blink. It’s just who they are at their core.
“The strength of the team is the team — and it was tonight. We had a lot of kids step up and hit big shots.”
Lanier’s game took a big hit when 6-foot-4 junior Christabel Ezumah picked up two fouls in the first 1:38 and it affected the Longhorns on the boards for much of the rest of the half. Lovejoy held a 10-3 advantage in offensive rebounding and Ezumah’s absence was significant.
Neither team found a scoring groove until the second quarter. The game was scoreless for the first 2:45 until Mya Williams hit an open jumper. It took Lovejoy 5:38 to get its first points and the first quarter finished tied 7-7, but not before Fuller picked up her third foul.
Despite the early difficulties, including 14 first-half turnovers, the Longhorns hung tough and got help from the bench with 14 points. Surles finished with nine points, seven assists and forced five turnovers to swing the game.
Lovejoy was led by Anaya Boyd’s 15 points.
“(Lovejoy) is a great team,” Slater said. “They’ve got a great coach. It’s unfortunate someone had to lose because that’s a heck of a team.”
It took a heck of an effort to beat the champs, too, and the Longhorns basked in their ability to cap a historic season.
“(Slater) always wanted to win state championships and he called it — he said it was going to be with us,” Lawrence said. “I felt confident. Our team, we’re good at keeping our composure. We never let the scoreboard affect us.”