Final Four bound: LaFayette wins Northeast Regional championship

Published 6:53 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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As the time ticked away on Wednesday, the Bulldogs were hit with an unfamiliar feeling at this stage of the season. Pure joy. LaFayette is advancing to the state semifinal after beating Gaston 54-47 in the Northeast Regional Championship. 

The Bulldogs took a 7-6 lead with 4:28 left in the first quarter and never trailed after that, but LaFayette was tested throughout the final stages of the game. 

Deaundra Vines, Vaderrian “Tae” Story and Branaviyun “Bebe” Story were named to the all-tournament team, and Vaderrian was awarded MVP. When the game got close, LaFayette leaned on those three seniors to close it out. 

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“Senior leadership was what it took to hold them off,” said LaFayette coach Chase Lewis. “I’m sure if you’re a normal fan, you’re probably a little jittery and shaken up there, but our guys are composed.”

Jordan Johnson connected on two free throws to put the Bulldogs up five with 39 seconds left. Then, on the next-to-last possession, Deaundra Vines came away with the steal and raced down the court to put the final touches on the game.

“I had been watching Mica all game and what he had been doing,” Vines said. “At halftime, he was killing us with the hesi going [towards] the sideline. I just knew he was going to do it again.” 

Vaderrian Story and Vines led the way for the Bulldogs with 14 points apiece. Branaviyun added 13 points. 

Vines brought the energy for LaFayette consistently on the defensive side, and Vaderrian Story hit the big shots for LaFayette when the game still hung in the balance. Vaderrian has grown this season into one of the best scorers in 2A. 

“It grows as I get my rhythm throughout the game,” Story said. “If I see one shot go in, that’s like the green light for me.” 

Mica Merriman led the way for Gaston with 14 points, but the Bulldogs were able to limit Merriman at times. LaFayette got Merriman into foul trouble early on in the game and got Merriman to turn the ball over seven times.

“I want to give credit to the guys that practice, guys that don’t get all the credit and shine because they gave us this look that we’ve seen all practice long,” Lewis said. “They gave us the no. 12, the Merriman kid, look that we needed to see.” 

Through film study, Lewis and the rest of the coaching staff knew that the team needed to switch things up on defense. The Bulldogs typically play a lot more man defense, but LaFayette switched to playing a “box” zone defense on Wednesday. The defense caused chaos for Gaston as the Bulldogs forced 21 turnovers in the game. 

Merriman was still a major factor late in the game for Gaston as he showed no quit and helped cut LaFayette’s lead down to two possessions with under a minute left. 

“You can just tell he has a winning attitude,” Lewis said. “He just has that Mamba Mentality is what I say.” 

The season that LaFayette has had to this point is miraculous considering what the Bulldogs have had to overcome. LaFayette has battled with key injuries all season, and now they are just one win away from a state championship appearance. 

“The journey has been tough,” Lewis said. “I tell people all the time, this is the team of adversity right here. We have been through so much from the beginning of the year until this point. Proud, that’s not even the word.” 

Lewis had been to the regional final game three times in his career, but this is going to be his first time advancing to the state semifinals as a head coach. 

The Bulldogs will travel to Birmingham to face off in the state semifinal against Highland Home on Feb. 26. Tipoff is set for 8:30 P.M. ET.