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No. 1 Graford ousts Huckabay in gritty fourth-round win

Mar. 1—MANSFIELD — Following a hard-fought third-round win over Slidell in the regional quarterfinals, the No. 1 Graford Rabbits found themselves matched up against another tough opponent in the regional semifinals Friday night. Graford competed against the Huckabay Indians at Mansfield High School with a regional final berth on the line in Class 1A Region III.

Graford received a strong challenge from the Indians throughout the contest, but the two-time defending state champions put their experience and unity on display as they pulled away with an impressive fourth-quarter effort, walking away with a 49-35 victory.

"Trust with everyone on the team and experience — this is our fourth time being in this situation — and it comes from us knowing what we can accomplish," Brad Lemley said.

In spite of a few defensive errors and some tough calls, the Graford defense was suffocating once again as it held Huckabay nearly 23 points below their season average. The Rabbits face-guarded 6-foot-3 forward Sean Wood and eliminated the chance of him establishing offensive rhythm while the host of Rabbit guards competed well against a talented Huckabay backcourt.

"I was harping on our defense in the first half, but we held a really good team to 35 points," Graford head coach Jeff Bell said. "I thought, overall, we did a really good job because they (Huckabay) are really good. They're hard to guard, their guards are hard to guard and Number 33 (Sean Wood) is a hard matchup. We beat a good team, we'll have to beat a good one tomorrow and that's why it's called, 'survive and advance.'"

In the opening stages of the game, Graford got out to a 12-8 first-quarter lead, highlighted by a three-point play late in the frame from junior guard Mac Lemley. He attacked the basket again for the opening bucket of the second quarter that increased the lead to 15-10. With less than two minutes left before halftime, Brad Lemley made a baby hook shot in the paint and his twin brother Jess Lemley hit a 3-pointer with five seconds left to give Graford a 23-17 lead at the break.

Graford continued to control the third quarter with a slim advantage, and Mac Lemley continued to carve up the Huckabay defense with his drives to the basket. He made a layup with 2:29 left that gave Graford a 29-24 lead, but the Indians countered with a 5-0 run that knotted the score at 29-all. There were tense moments during Huckabay's push that included tough fouls and calls that did not fall in Graford's favor. Despite that, the veteran Rabbits squad remained confident simply because they have been in similar high-stakes situations multiple times during their high school careers.

"A lot of it is fueled by what we know we can do," Graford senior post Brad Lemley said. "You come back in at halftime and you say, 'Okay, we've been making a few mistakes here and there, we're down this many points, but we know we can play better.' That gives us confidence to know we can come out and play better in the second half and it builds on those great defensive possessions — we know we can carry it on from there."

While some calls were tough for Rabbit fans to swallow, Bell lauded the officiating from the game and emphasized the need to make corrections moving forward. Graford, though, put its best foot forward in the decisive fourth quarter.

Brad Lemley hit a free throw 28 seconds into the frame and made a layup at the 6:56 mark off a nice pass from senior guard Christian Shead that gave the Rabbits a 34-29 advantage. After that, Lemley continued to go to work down low with another tough driving layup with 5:56 left, and Shea followed that up with a layup of his own on the next possession that stretched the margin to 38-31.

Then, the exclamation point came when Lemley rose high off the court while being crowded by three Huckabay defenders. Despite that, the chiseled senior post absorbed the contact and finished strong for a big and-one layup to the delight of the Graford faithful. He swished the free throw with 3:29 left to make it a 41-33 contest. After that, Shead drove in and scored at the rack with 2:31 to go that increased the advantage to 43-35, and Graford made six free throws down the stretch to put the game on ice.

Brad Lemley scored a team-high 15 points while Mac Lemley finished a strong night with 14 points. Christian Shea recorded seven points while Connor Waters and Cye Lemley each had four points. Waters also played quality defense as he logged heavy minutes face-guarding Wood of Huckabay, who was limited to eight points.

The Rabbits (33-4, 12-0) will attempt to reach their third consecutive state tournament at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mansfield High School against the Gordon Longhorns, who eliminated Dodd City 51-33 in their regional semifinal contest.

"We are so eager," Brad Lemley said. "We know we've got to face a great Gordon team tomorrow, but we know what we are capable of and what they are capable of — it's just a matter of who brings their best on that given night."