Panthers capture third straight state title
BIRMINGHAM — After a potential game-winning shot clanked off the rim, Lanett High School basketball fans rained chants of “three, three, three” onto the floor at Legacy Arena.
The Panthers stood less than five seconds away from winning a third consecutive Class 2A state title.
Guarding a two-point lead, all the team needed was for Trikweze Bridges to sink a couple of insurance free throws.
The junior, who responded to the bleachers’ shouts by raising one finger in the air, went 1-for-2 at the charity stripe.
But it proved sufficient.
Lanett (26-5) held off St. Luke’s Episcopal, 41-38, in Friday’s final.
The Panthers became the 11th boys basketball team in the history of the Alabama High School Athletic Association to win state championships three years in a row.
“I want to compliment our kids for the way they played today,” Lanett head coach Richard Carter said. “They gave all they had. The fruits of our labor, now we’ve three-peated, hey, what can you say?”
He had plenty to tell his team late in the fourth quarter.
Clinging to a one-point lead, 39-38, with under three minutes remaining, he called a timeout.
Rarely this season has Lanett found itself in such tight battles. It rode a 15-game win streak into Friday’s final and outscored previous playoff opponents by an average margin of 20-plus points.
In the huddle, Carter told his guys to stay calm, practice patience and wait for the right shot.
“Coach always preaches, ‘keep your heads up,’” senior Ty Truitt said.
The Panthers did not record a field goal in the final minutes of action, but they played a tenacious brand of defense that enabled them to preserve their narrow advantage.
Truitt, who scored only two points and fouled out in the fourth quarter, helped compensate for his low offensive output by making hustle plays on defense.
With time ticking down and St. Luke’s (22-9) closing in, he dove onto the court to poke away a steal.
Frames like that provided Lanett with the edge it needed in a game that no way resembled the 2016 state final. Two years ago, the Panthers defeated St. Luke’s by 25 points to initiate their historic title run.
“St. Luke’s came and played one heck of a ball game today,” Carter said. “They fought and they fought and they fought, and they would not go away.”
Lanett and St. Luke’s traded the lead multiple times early in the fourth quarter, which Lanett entered with a 32-30 edge.
A layup from Wildcats senior Mark Wilcox, who finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds, put his team up by a point, 34-33.
Lanett countered with a pair of free throws from sophomore Kristian Story, but Wilcox again found the hoop from close range.
The Panthers took a definitive lead after senior Anquaevious Pollard sank a layup and a jumper on consecutive possessions.
Final-minute free throws from Quae Houston and Bridges helped ice the game for Lanett. St. Luke’s came up empty on a pair of last-gasp 3-pointers.
“Just stay calm and just work,” Bridges said of his team’s mentality. “It was just simple to us.”
At times, the game seemed anything but simple for the Panthers. They struggled to shoot the ball — going 13 of 35 from the field — didn’t make a single 3 and were outrebounded by a smaller St. Luke’s lineup, 34-32.
The Wildcats controlled the tempo for much of the game. Possession after possession saw them set up their half-court offense and wait for an open crease.
The slow pace allowed them to build a 9-8 lead after one quarter and remain in contention throughout the second half. They trailed 24-17 at intermission before charging back in the third quarter.
“I knew we’d have a chance at the end,” St. Luke’s coach Kantonio Davis said, “and we did.”
The only stretch of the game in which Lanett looked like a superior team occurred in the second quarter, which the Panthers began on a 12-3 run. They applied a full-court press that increased the pace and created opportunities in transition.
Pollard, who had 12 points and eight boards, capped the opening half on a thunderous steal-and-score dunk. He was one of two Panthers named to the all-tournament team.
Senior teammate Emanuel Littles, who finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, was selected tournament MVP.
“To know that we’ve put our names in history forever, it feels great,” he said.
As Lanett’s contingent of attending fans recited their celebratory chant following the final buzzer, Littles ran toward the Panthers’ bench and met Truitt for a mid-air embrace.
Carter stood to their left, near the scorer’s table, soaking in the moment with his arms raised high.
The veteran coach waited for 45 years to win his first state championship in 2016.
Now, he has done it twice more.
“The good Lord has blessed us and we’ve won three,” said Carter, his eyes welling after the game. “Thank you Jesus.”
To see more photos from Friday’s game, visit http://www.shelbycountyphotos.com/.