MANSFIELD, Texas -- Stepping on the court without one of its main pieces in 7-footer Isaiah Austin, Arlington Grace Prep entered Saturday's game as a small underdog against Houston Westbury Christian, the two-time defending TAPPS 4A champion.
The odds seemed to get even worse for Grace Prep midway through the game, as the team's floor general, Texas A&M signee Jamal Branch, went down with a hip injury that left him in noticeable pain throughout the second half. Branch only played sparingly in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Austin served a one-game suspension and did not play after being ejected in the third quarter of Friday's state-semifinal game against Houston Second Baptist. Without Austin and Branch -- and eventually without Jelon Hornbeak, who fouled out with 5:18 left to play in the fourth quarter -- Grace Prep wasn't supposed to have a chance.
Once the fourth-quarter buzzer sounded, however, the Lions were the ones celebrating at midcourt, and Westbury Christian was the team fighting emotions on the sidelines. Grace Prep topped Westbury Christian, 42-37, at Legacy High School, in the TAPPS 4A state final. Grace Prep won its 30th game of the year and, most importantly, exorcised demons of past in falling short of winning a state title.
Without three starters on the floor at the end of the game, Grace Prep (30-6) showed its depth and outscored Westbury Christian, 13-5, in the fourth quarter to earn the win. The undermanned Lions won a title after competing in three of the last four state-championship games.
Instead of names like Branch, Austin and Hornbeak leading the show, Grace Prep beamed with pride as players such as Jacob Dean make clutch free throws and players such as Micah Thornton and Drake Thomas make game-changing plays on both sides of the ball.
"Everybody figured this wasn't going to happen, but this was a total team effort," Grace Prep coach Ray Forsett said. "This was the best we moved the ball all year, and we knew our six, seven and eight guys would have to be big for us."
The biggest player of the day, however, celebrated his 15th birthday on Saturday. Standout freshman Emmanuel Mudiay took over leadership duties in the second half for Grace Prep and scored 14 of his game-high 16 points. He gave the Lions a 38-37 lead with two free throws at the 1:27 mark. Those free throws gave Grace Prep the lead for good.
"We had to battle through a lot," Mudiay said. "We just won by God, all God. I love these guys, and this is what I wanted. I'm going to share this with my family, my team and the people I love."
"I call [Mudiay] E-class," Forsett added, "and today, he ran smoothly for us, just like a Benz."
Grace Prep led, 13-9, entering the second quarter, but Westbury Christian (37-2) went into the locker room at the half with a 25-21 advantage. The Wildcats led by three going into the fourth quarter, but their offense stalled in the final period. Westbury Christian made only one field goal in the quarter, a Cody Glenn bucket at the 7:35 mark.
Westbury Christian struggled when point guard Anthony Collins fouled out with 3:16 left to play. After he fouled out, the Wildcats were held to zero points and forced three crucial turnovers. Credit the play to solid Grace Prep defense.
"I can't say enough about all our guys," Forsett said. "They all told Isaiah last night, 'We got you.' They kept their word, and got it done."
Branch had 15 points for Grace Prep, most of the points coming in the first half. Glenn led Westbury Christian with 14 points and drained four 3-pointers. Delvin Dickerson had seven points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats.