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ATLANTA – The Langston Hughes Panthers had to come back to go back to back like their on the cover of Lethal Weapon, like they’re Jordan 96, 97.
With senior Landers Nolley (34 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals) leading the rally, Langston Hughes captured its second straight GHSA Class 6-A state championship with an 85-78 victory over Gainesville at Georgia Tech (McCamish Pavilion) on March 9.
“Landers Nolley is all about winning bar none,” Langston Hughes coach Rory Welsh said. “This is his third straight championship and it’s not by mistake. He does whatever we ask him to. Sometimes he may not want to do it but he still does. He’s a very coachable kid. He has the best work ethic in the state of Georgia to go from being unknown to being a top guy in the state. It’s a testament to his work ethic and coachability.”
After trailing by as many as nine points in the third quarter, Langston Hughes traded baskets with the Red Elephants until the latter part of the frame when Nolley converted a layup while being fouled and Jarrel Rosser was hit with a technical foul.
Nolley sank all three free throws for a 59-57 edge, which was the Panthers’ first lead of the game. On a separate trip down the floor, Nolley, who finished 17-of-20 from the stripe, added two more foul shots to extend the margin to four. Tyrel Morgan’s (14 points, six rebounds, five assists) layup capped the 11-0 run, which helped send Langston into the fourth quarter ahead 65-59.
“We knew if we kept the game close, we would have a chance,” Welsh said. “Gainesville is one of the best teams in the state–hands down. I tip my hat to them but they hadn’t played a ton of close games this year. We just figured if we keep it in striking distance and play our best basketball in the second half, we would have a chance to win the game.”
In the final period, Tyler Smith (17 points) played a critical role in keeping the Panthers ahead and eventually stretching the margin to 78-67.
“Tyler Smith is the most underrated unsigned senior in the state of Georgia,” Welsh said. “Everybody wants him to be something he ain’t. He’s not a wing shooter. He’s not a perimeter-oriented guy. He’s a slasher, rebounder, finisher. He’s tough as nails and pound for pound one of the most athletic guys in the state and he helped quarterback us to this victory tonight.”
But Gainesville made one last push which was sparked by Bailey Minor’s (17 points) four-point play and continued by Rafael Rubel’s putback for a 78-74 score with over a minute remaining.
Nolley responded with two foul shots, and even though Rubel (12 points) hit a 3-pointer on the other end, Papa Samba (six points, six rebounds) responded with a layup for a 82-77 score and the Panthers capitalized on their ensuing trips to the foul line to seal things.
“Winning another championship is unbelievable,” Welsh said. “Last year was the first state championship in school history. It’s a blessing. This team deserves it. I got nothing but good guys on my team.”
After an evenly played first quarter (21-21), the Red Elephants appeared to be on their way to storming past their fifth straight opponent in the playoffs when they put together a 21-7 run in the second quarter for a 14-point advantage with 2:05 left in the frame.
Kajuan Hale scored 15 points and K.j. Buffen added 13 for Gainesville, which won its previous 21 games.