ALBANY -- Dallis Smith could have searched for the perfect phrase, the one that would capture just how big, tough and physical Lanier's talented basketball team is.
Instead, he just shook his head.
"They are a great team,'' said Smith, whose Herald No. 3 Westover Patriots turned a close game into the most impressive win of the opening day of the U-Save-It Basketball Classic on Saturday when they beat Lanier, 59-46.
"They're physical. They have shooters and they play hard,'' Smith said.
Just what Westover needed, right?
The Patriots (5-3) were coming off an overtime loss to Albany High, which hadn't beaten the Patriots in almost five years, and faced a Lanier team that has visions of winning the Class A state title.
The Longhorns are ranked eighth in the state coaches poll, but probably should be higher, because they return almost everyone from last year's state playoff team, including four players from the Ivory Coast.
One of them -- Junior Gnonkonde -- took over immediately, grabbing five rebounds, blocking a shot and slamming home two dunks in the first quarter as Lanier jumped out to a 17-12 lead.
But there's something about Westover, whether it's tradition, coaching, the heritage of the program or a combination of all of the above, and the Patriots just wouldn't allow Lanier, which was bigger and much more physical, to run away.
Herald Super 6er Malcolm Sapp hit his first three shots and grabbed a couple of rebounds early to keep the Patriots in the game, and then he hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter as Westover slowly began to come back and seize control.
The Patriots rallied from a seven-point deficit (19-12) with a 10-3 run as Dequan Green hit a 3, then Sapp dropped a pair of free throws before hitting his first 3-pointer to close to 21-20. Then senior Joseph Harrell, had a put-back to knot the score at 22-22.
Westover never trailed again. Sapp's second 3 lifted the Pats to a 27-22 lead and Lanier was held scoreless until Emmanuel Ezoua hit a shot inside to close to 27-24.
Westover led, 28-24, at halftime, and was still clinging to a 40-37 lead at the end of three quarters. The Patriots opened the fourth with a 12-3 run as Brandon Hudson came off the bench to hit a put-back to start the fourth and later hit a big 3-pointer to lift Westover to a 47-40 lead. Sapp scored four of Westover's next five points to give the Patriots a 52-40 lead with three minutes left.
"I just had to hit that shot to help my team,'' Hudson said.
Sapp finished with 25 points, four rebounds and five steals, and went 8-of-9 from the free throw line to lead the way. Harrell had three blocks, seven rebounds and ended the game with a thundering dunk to put an exclamation point on this one.
"Lanier has a lot of heart,'' Sapp said. "We came out in the second half with a lot of energy. We knew we just needed to keep playing hard to be able to beat them.''
It was a game both teams said they needed.
"I wanted to play Westover,'' said Lanier coach Jared Garner, whose team was 6-1 before Saturday. "We came to this tournament to play teams like this. That's a great program, and we needed a game like this.
We knew the kind of team Westover has.
"I don't want to offend anyone, but our sub-region games don't really get us ready for the postseason and that's why we need games like this. They gave us the kind of game we needed.''
Westover needed a win after losing to Albany, and got a lot more.
"We needed to bounce back from that loss to Albany and get back on track,'' Smith said. "And we got a win, and we beat a really good team to do it.
"I thought our kids stepped up to the challenge. They went after it like the old Westover. I thought they swelled up in the second half. This was a good win for us.''
Westover resumes the Classic on Monday against Mt. Zion at 7 p.m.