Above Photo: Lanier senior Makai Vassell goes for the three-pointer in the game against Shiloh on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo by Alicia Couch Payne

Players seek to avenge last year’s loss in state championship game


Expectations are high this season for the Lanier varsity boys basketball team after just losing out on capturing the state championship title in overtime to Chattahoochee in 2020. It was a heartbreaking loss with just three points separating them at 69-66. It was a Cinderella-type season with the Longhorns making school history as it was the first time the boys’ basketball program had made it that far into the postseason.

Despite losing the top scorer, Sion James from last year’s championship game, to graduation, the Longhorns return their number one and two producers from that game. Andrew McConnell and Iajah Phillips are back leading Lanier this year along with fellow senior Makai Vassell. The team also has four promising freshmen on the roster — Cameron Thornton, CJ Hyland, Jayce Nathaniel and Tahai Morgan.

Head coach Branden Mayweather said his team is hungry to avenge the loss from last year. The team has dubbed this year as the “Revenge Tour” and have that printed on their warmup shirts as a reminder. It’s a reminder of all they have at stake this year, of the things they must do better and of the legacy that they are trying to build for the program. 

“We have not run from the pain and disappointment, we have used that as our fuel to make everything we do … better,” Mayweather said. “So free throws and our defense have been areas we have focused on, but just being better overall has been the focus because we were so close.” 

The extra work is showing as the Longhorns are 12-3 overall on the season and 4-0 in Region 8-AAAAAA. Their losses came at the hands of last year’s opponent in the championship game, Chattahoochee (78-75), 10th ranked Evans (82-74) and 5th ranked Wheeler (79-64). 

Lanier held on to win a very important game Jan. 8 when they played Shiloh at home. Both teams were undefeated in region play going into the game. The game was a tough one with two teams that were pretty evenly matched. They exchanged the lead back and forth for pretty much the entire game, but Lanier was able to hold on to win 48-46 over Shiloh. 

The Longhorns trailed the Raiders for the first quarter of the game, but they did not panic even when Phillips ran into early penalty trouble and was not on the court for a good portion of the game. McConnell and Vassell kept their teammates calm and focused. They played good defense and the team did well with their free throws. Failure to convert penalty shots into points was part of Shiloh’s downfall. 

Vassell led the Longhorns in the game against Shiloh with 16 points. McConnell, a Madison University commit, put up the second-most points with 13 for Lanier. Vassell would also lead the offense in Tuesday night’s win over Central Gwinnett.

It’s difficult for any team to carry on the success of a previous season, let alone with the challenges this one has had with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging. Following strict guidelines to keep his team healthy has not been an easy feat, but Mayweather feels they have done a good job establishing procedures to protect their team. His players know what is at stake, and they follow those guidelines right down to sitting in assigned seats that are spaced out courtside. They carry bins to their courtside chairs that contain their belongings including their water bottles. At no time does any other player come into contact with their belongings. 

Perhaps the biggest impact COVID-19 has had on pretty much every sport, especially where the seniors are concerned, is college recruiting. With in-person recruiting shut down, coaches and players are having to work harder than ever before to get those college offers coming in. Instead of the norm, which would be college recruiters stopping by games and practices, films taken from games and practices have been made into recruiting videos and are sent to the recruiters. 

Despite the craziness of the season, this team has shown that they are hungry and have the grit and determination to have one interesting “Revenge Tour.”

“The program itself served notice to the state last year on the shoulders of guys like Sion James, Goran Uzunov and Ryan Johnson,” Mayweather said. “Now the seniors who have returned all the way down to this new crop of our four talented freshmen have shown that we are not going anywhere. Lanier basketball is on the map and we are committed to being a program that competes year after year.”

Team update:  Lanier improves to 13-3 overall and 5-0 in Region 8-AAAAAA after beating Dacula 57-39 on Friday night, Jan. 15, 2021.  Andrew McConnell led the Longhorns with 23 points.  Justin Birch contributed with 9 points while Iajah Phillips put eight points on the board for Lanier.

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