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No. 1 Graford pulls away for victory over Slidell

Feb. 28—BRIDGEPORT — The No. 1 Graford Rabbits basketball team has hoisted the state championship trophy as the best team in Class 1A competition in each of the last two seasons. In this year's regional quarterfinal matchup against the Slidell Greyhounds. Unlike last year's contest between the two teams in the same round of the postseason — an 84-41 victory for Graford — the 2024 postseason matchup proved to be a greater challenge for Graford.

"Coach (Jeff) Bell always says it best every day, 'Pressure is a privilege,' and great teams win by playing through the pressure," Graford senior Connor Waters said. "We've had some tough games in district — some 80-point games — and these games right here are a lot more fun to play in because of the pressure. And, due to our past experience, we're able to handle games like this."

The Rabbits remained locked in throughout the contest and came back from a 29-25 third-quarter deficit to post a 44-38 victory Tuesday night at Bridgeport High School to give Graford the regional quarterfinal trophy for the fifth consecutive season.

"They outplayed us in the third for sure and part of the second, but we picked it up in just enough time and made the big plays down the stretch," Rabbits head coach Jeff Bell said. "I think it helps that we've been down before — we were down by seven at the half in the state title game and won — but hats off to Slidell. They played really, really well and hard — they're always really well coached."

The top-ranked Rabbits opened up a 10-2 lead in the early going behind a calculated attack on offense coupled with quality defensive possessions without committing a foul, and the stingy, suffocating defense is a catalyst of Graford basketball.

"I'm a believer that defense wins champions and we work on it every day — it's nonstop," Bell said. "We think if you're not scoring but you can guard, you have a chance to win. In the playoffs against really good teams, the scores go way down because the intensity and pressure pick up — the scores just go down."

Graford ended the first quarter with a 14-7 lead, and the two-time defending state champions continued to make winning plays in the second quarter. Senior guard Christian Shea found senior Mac Lemley — one of four Lemley players on the roster — down low for a hoop with 6:20 left that gave Graford a 16-10 lead.

Later in the quarter, Kamdyn Richardson hit a triple from the corner that stretched Graford's lead to 19-13 with 3:31 left. Moments later, Jess Lemley found the basket on a driving layup with 1:46 to go to extend Graford's advantage to 21-16. After that, the Rabbits turned defense into offense as Cye Lemley blocked a Slidell shot, and senior guard Mac Lemley turned it into two points with a layup at the other end with 1:17 remaining. Graford ultimately entered halftime with a 23-18 advantage.

Slidell turned the game around momentarily in the third quarter, outscoring Graford 7-2 in the frame that put the Rabbits in a hole — 29-25 — then, the champions responded.

"Number 30 off the bench Jess Lemley said it best," Waters said. "We were down four in the fourth quarter and he said, 'We've been here before, we've experienced this.' Last year in the state title game, we were down by seven and came back. Being a veteran team, the past experience we've had from the last two years has helped us handle these games."

Cye Lemley drove to the rack and scored on a layup 30 seconds into the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to two, and he followed up his bucket with an assist to senior post Brad Lemley down low for the score that tied the game at 29-all with 6:45 left in regulation.

"We started slowing down and weren't getting good looks, but the difference for us was we got back to running later in the game — we are a running team," Bell said. "I was furious because we were not moving the ball well."

Slidell responded with a bucket of its own but Mac Lemley drove in and scored with 6:11 left that knotted the score once again, this time at 31-31. Then, Cye Lemley leaked out behind the Slidell defense for a layup in transition, and Waters' and-one layup gave Graford the lead for good at 36-33 with 5:28 left. Mac Lemley scored a critical bucket out of a timeout moments later that extended the Rabbits' advantage to 38-33 with 2:50 remaining, and Graford was able to salt the game away at the free throw line.

"A part of our culture is just knowing how to act and doing things the right way — win or lose," Bell said. "Life's not fair all the time, you don't always get what you want, so you have to know how to handle situations. We preach that daily but I've got the best kids in America. They just work hard, act right and they've been raised right — I'm the lucky one."

Mac Lemley scored a game-high 14 points to lead Graford while Brad Lemley added 10. Waters and Shea each scored six points while Cye Lemley and Kamdyn Richardson each had three.

"Tonight, we didn't perform like we should have, but I will say in practices this last week, we've had hard practices — extremely hard practices," Waters said. "I think winning big games like this happens in practice."

Graford (26-4, 10-0) will compete in the regional tournament, beginning with its regional semifinal matchup against Huckabay at Mansfield High School at 6:30 p.m. Friday night.

"I've got an old saying that an old coach told me a long time ago, 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch,'" Bell said. "I've lived by that and I don't look ahead — we focus on the task at hand and then move forward if we are fortunate enough to win."