WINDER — The Lanier girls basketball team capped off a perfect run through region play when it captured the Region 8-AAAAAA title with a 38-32 win over Winder-Barrow on Saturday night.
The Longhorns (24-3) never trailed in the contest and were able to hold off the Bulldoggs (18-9) and region player of the year Chellia Watson. The win serves as redemption for Lanier, in particular its five seniors, after the Longhorns lost the region title game to the Bulldoggs a year ago.
“They’re their own crew,” first-year Lanier head coach Tim Slater said of his team. “They lead themselves, they coach themselves. They’re tremendous young ladies with character and work ethic. For me, it’s been an easy, easy process to coach them because they’re a joy to coach.”
Offense was at a premium in the contest, as both teams deployed aggressive defenses that forced many turnovers. But Lanier found just enough offense from its seniors to get over the top.
In the first half, it was Mekala Fuller who scored nine of Lanier’s 19 points. Down the stretch, it was Kalen Surles. Surles’ nine second-half points, which included a critical fourth-quarter 3-pointer to extend the Lanier lead to 31-24, proved to be enough to avenge a bitter region championship game defeat to Winder-Barrow a year ago.
“Kalen Surles is a tremendous player and some college is going to be very lucky to have her,” Slater said. “She impresses me every day with the type of person she is and the type of player she is.”
The Longhorns got off to a fast start behind their swarming defense.
Lanier jumped out to a 7-0 lead to start and led by as many as nine points in the first half. The Longhorn defense was regularly forcing turnovers and Winder-Barrow struggled to merely get off shots in the opening minutes.
But Watson kept the Bulldoggs in it early. Despite being regularly double-teamed, she scored 10 of Winder-Barrow’s 14 first-half points. She ended Winder-Barrow’s early scoring drought with two deep 3-pointers that energized the Bulldoggs and their home crowd. Her efforts were not enough to take a halftime lead, however.
Lanier took a 19-14 lead into the locker rooms. It could have been more, though, if not for turnovers and a few missed open looks. But as the game progressed, Lanier found ways to get just enough offense to stay ahead.
“We had to be patient,” Surles said. “Every time we would be unfocused, we started panicking. We started to calm down and did what we do.”
In addition to nine points apiece from Surles and Fuller, the Longhorns got a lift off of the bench from junior Lizzie Campbell, who scored eight of her own.
All in all, it was Lanier’s balanced attack that was able to scrape together enough points against a strong defense. On the flip side, Winder-Barrow had difficulty finding offense to compliment Watson, who finished with 16 points.
The championship-clinching victory was special for Slater, who said he felt honored to help his senior class to a title in his first season at the helm.
“That’s a testament to them and how hard they work, and a testament to them and their character,” Slater said. “They’re great kids. I can’t say enough about them. This is their championship. I just got to be present with them.”