Saturday, March 02, 2013
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Railers win OT thriller to capture regional title

By Jeff Benjamin

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[March 02, 2013]  BLOOMINGTON -- I think most people have grown up hearing that baseball is a game of inches. Normal U-High coach Bob Fitzgerald would probably like to add Friday night's regional basketball final into that mix. When U-High's Brad Dulee hit a jumper from the left wing as the fourth quarter came to a close, many, including Fitzgerald, thought Dulee had hit the game-winner. However, the official rightly noticed that Dulee's right foot was on the line and his jumper had only tied the game at 41.

As much as Fitzgerald vocally protested the call, it gave the Lincoln Railers a reprieve and sent the contest into overtime. In the extra session, it was a microcosm of the season: big shots, clutch free throw shooting and a BIG defensive play that allowed the Railers to extend their season at least one more game with a 48-45 victory in overtime. It is the first regional title in three seasons for the Railers (28-4), who advance to a Wednesday matchup with a familiar foe in Chatham Glenwood, the winner from the Jacksonville Regional.

"We've got a bunch of fighters," a very happy Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said. "I'm so proud of this team. They're fun to watch, even from where I'm sitting."

The Railers would need all that fight, and a little bit of luck, to get by a very good U-High team that finishes their season at 22-6.

Bowlby got Lincoln out to an early 4-0 lead. After the Pioneers got on the board, it was a backdoor layup from Podbelsek and a pair of free throws from Gavin Block that pushed Lincoln out to an 8-2 advantage. Another score from Normal U-High was answered by a corner 3 from Bowlby as the Railers ended the first quarter up 11-4.

For everything that went right in the first quarter, the second quarter, at least in the beginning, belonged to U-High. A 3-pointer from Nick Schroeder was followed by two baskets from Ohio State recruit Keita Bates-Diop, and the seven-point lead for the Railers had evaporated in the blink of an eye. Needing a big basket, the Railers went back to an old reliable play that found Bowlby open on the baseline. When the junior got the score, the Railers went back up 13-11. Max Cook got on the board with a drive down the lane and was fouled. Cook missed the free throw, but the Railer lead had grown back to four. Lincoln's free throw issues continued when Bowlby missed the front end of a one-and-one near the end of the first half. In a game like this one, you get a bad feeling when points are left on the floor.

The Railers got a huge emotional lift going into half when U-High's last-second shot was blocked as Podbelsek came out on the wing and swatted away the final scoring attempt by the Pioneers. Up 15-11, Lincoln went in confident, while I'm sure the Railer Nation in attendance headed to the concession stand looking for the Tums.

The third quarter was just good high school basketball. Both teams hit big shots, while forcing the other team into mistakes. Cook got the Railers off to a fast start by draining a top-of-the-key 3. After Schroeder answered from long range, Tyler Horchem hit his only 3 of the night to push the lead back to seven at 21-14. Cook hit again from behind the arc to give Lincoln the 24-16 lead. A Podbelsek foul on Schroeder put him at the line for three free throws as U-High pulled to within 24-19. After the teams traded baskets, it was Bowlby converting a three-point play to give the Railers a 29-21 lead going into the fourth.

At the start of the fourth, the Railers got a 3-point basket from Block, his first offensive showing since the free throws in the first. However, his presence was certainly felt on the boards.

"He (Block) was big for us tonight," Alexander said. "He was not a sophomore out there tonight, and he gets rewarded with most likely needing stitches (lip)."

The 3 from Block gave Lincoln their largest lead of the night, and it was looking as though we would need to check out directions to Mount Zion. Up 32-21, a foul was whistled on Bates-Diop, prompting an "overrated" chant from the Lincoln student section. On the broadcast, I even commented that there was still plenty of time for him to prove that he was not, and Alexander said: "They may have awakened the sleeping dog."

It also didn't help that Tuesday's free throw issues came back on Friday night. Up 32-24, the Railers were in the bonus early but could not take advantage. Both Block and Horchem missed the front ends of one-and-ones, giving the Pioneers more and more opportunities. At the 4:12 mark, Block was able to hit both free throws, pushing the lead back to double figures at 34-24.

Enter Mr. Bates-Diop.

The future Buckeye hit a 3 to draw the Pioneers closer, only to have Block, who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter, hit a runner in the lane. It was a shot he almost didn't take. From our broadcast position, you could clearly see his eyes and that he glanced in the corner to an open Horchem. Fortunately, he did not pass off but took the shot, and the Railers climbed back to a nine-point lead.

U-High kept hanging around, scoring again to bring it back down to seven. Cook continued the return of good free throw shooting by draining two more, only to see Schroeder hit a long 3-pointer, shrinking the Lincoln lead to 38-32. Cook again converted two free throws to make it 40-32. Bates-Diop connected for a long 3 to make it 40-35, and the roof almost came off the Robert Frank Sports Complex when he hit from the top of the key and was fouled by Podbelsek. When Bates-Diop hit the free throw with 24.2 seconds left, U-High had fought back to being down just one at 40-39.

[to top of second column]

Block was fouled with 17.4 seconds to go, made the first free throw but missed the second, giving the Pioneers a chance to tie, or possibly win the game with a 3. After a timeout, everybody figured it was either Bates-Diop or Schroeder who would be taking the shot. As the Pioneer offense got running, it looked like Lincoln's defense had stepped up when Block made a tip away, but the ball trickled out of bounds with 5.7 to go. As Lincoln focused on the two top targets, it was Dulee who took advantage of being ignored. The senior stepped up and connected as time expired. The only problem if you're a U-High fan, is he stepped up a little too far.

It was clearly a two-pointer as his foot was on the line, but Fitzgerald was furious, going as far as stomping his feet on the court and yelling and motioning that it was a 3. It took a while for the U-High players who had rushed the court to realize this game had gone to overtime, tied at 41.

U-High, now with all the momentum, got the first score of overtime, a shot off the glass from Bates-Diop, who had a game-high 20 points. It put the Pioneers up for the first time in the contest at 43-41. Podbelsek answered on the Lincoln end to knot the game at 43. U-High's Kane Wildermuth teetered the game back to the Pioneers with a tip-in on a missed shot, and as he thrust his fist in the air in celebration, his squad was back up 45-43.

Remember when Alexander called his guys fighters? It would take someone willing to stand toe-to-toe and take a punch to deliver a big punch as well. Lincoln's high scorer for the night, Cook, found himself open at the top of the key, hitting a 3 to put Lincoln up one at 46-45. Now it was time for the defense to step up. And the biggest play of the game came from the one player who did not score. But believe me, anyone connected with the Railers knows what a winning play it was.

With 12.5 seconds to go, U-High set up to try to win the game. After the teams swapped timeouts, as U-High was looking for either Bates-Diop or Schroeder, they did not see Joey Olden. The junior, who missed a good chunk of the season with a broken arm, reached out and tipped away the ball, and as it rolled around loose on the floor, it was picked up by Cook, who was fouled with 5.8 seconds to go. The junior calmly stepped to the line to put Lincoln up three at 48-45. U-High had one final attempt at scoring, but their half-court shot drifted to the left. The loose ball ended up with Schroeder, whose 3 was off the mark. As the horn sounded, the Railers and their faithful celebrated the first regional title in three years, the 52nd in school history and the 17th for Alexander at Lincoln.

"I don't know what more I can say about this game," Alexander said. "Or these guys." Of course, all of it was said with a pretty big smile on his face.

The Railers were led by Cook's 17 points, while Block and Bowlby each had 10. Podbelsek finished with eight and Horchem added three.

Lincoln now advances to sectional play at Mount Zion. The Railers will take on the Titans from Glenwood at 7:30 Wednesday night. Tickets are $5 and all seats are general admission. Tickets will be on sale at LCHS as follows:

  • LCHS students may purchase tickets on Tuesday at the ticket booth during their lunch hours.

  • Season ticket holders and the general public will be able to get their tickets Tuesday at the ticket booth from 3 to 6 p.m. and again on Wednesday in the main office from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

A pair of other CS8 teams took home regional titles on Friday night. Glenwood had the 53-43 win over SHG, and Taylorville -- yes, that Taylorville -- defeated Mount Zion 64-49. The Mount Zion sectional will have Taylorville facing Champaign Centennial, and the Railers square against Glenwood the next night.

Also of note, Lincoln's Jordan Perry and Aron Hopp advanced in the 3-point showdown. They will compete Friday night at Mount Zion. Let's hope the rest of the Railers are there as well, but first things first.



Cook 4 6-7 17, Block 2 5-7 10, Bowlby 4 1-2 10, Podbelsek 4 0-0 8, Horchem 1 0-1 3, Olden 0 0-0 0. Team 15 12-17 48. 3-point field goals 6 (Cook 3, Horchem, Block, Bowlby).

U-HIGH (45)

Bates-Diop 20, Schroeder 12, M.Wildermuth 7, K. Wildermuth 4, Dulee 2. Team 16 7-7 45. 3-point field goals 6 (Bates-Diop 3, Schroeder 3).

Scoring by quarters:

LCHS 11-4-14-12-7 48
U-High 4-7-10-20-4 45


Jeff Benjamin's Railer basketball articles

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