Tuesday, November 26, 2013
 
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Railers open season with a come-from-behind win

By Jeff Benjamin

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[November 26, 2013]  The Lincoln Railers kicked off the 2013-14 campaign with a come-from-behind 49-40 win Monday over the Champaign Centennial Chargers, using an 18-0 second-half run to pick up the victory in Neil Alexander's 700th game as Lincoln coach.

At the 5:17 mark of the fourth quarter, a corner 3-pointer from junior Gavin Block, who scored a career-high 22 points, put the Railers up to stay and fueled the run that would turn the seven-point deficit into a nine-point win. Down 38-31 late in the third quarter, Block was fouled on a 3-point attempt. Block, who entered the season as a career 78 percent free throw shooter, hit all three foul shots. Those points started the run that helped the Railers knock off Centennial for the fourth year in a row at the Eaton Corporation Round Robin Tournament. Free throws were certainly the key as Lincoln converted 16 of 18 from the line, including their last 12 in a row.

It took a while for anyone to score, but two free throws  what else on this night?  from Block at the 5:24 mark of the first put the season's first points on the board. Both teams went back and forth, but it was a shot fake, then a 3 at the buzzer from Block that put Lincoln up 10-8 at the end of the first quarter. The 3 from the junior started a 10-0 run that helped the Railers claim a nine-point advantage at 17-8.

In Monday's season preview article, I wondered who might fill the void of intensity and hustle left by the graduation of Will Podbelsek. Monday night's nominee turned out to be junior Will Cook. He converted one of two free throws after being fouled on a rebound shot, then came up with a steal that went over to Payton Ebelherr and ended up as a basket and free throw for Max Cook, the only other Railer in double figures, with 14. The younger Cook's efforts were not lost on coach Alexander.

"I hope the rest of them learned a little from Will Cook out there," Alexander praised. "He played with a lot of heart out there and got us going."

Lincoln (1-0) went up 20-11 on a 3-pointer from Tyler Horchem. That 3 was answered by a pair of long-range connections from University of Illinois recruit Michael Finke. The 6-foot-9 senior played most of the first half on the perimeter, and the two 3s he hit were on-the-move shots.

As they did at the end of the first quarter, the Railers used all possible time to score, and Max Cook drained a 3 as the clock expired to end the first half . Lincoln took a 23-17 lead into the locker room.

Whatever Centennial coach Tim Lavin expressed at halftime must have worked because it did not take long for his squad to climb back into the contest.

A quick 4-0 spurt pulled the Chargers to within a basket, but Edward Bowlby's first basket of the night pushed the Railer lead back to four at 25-21. The margin stayed the same until 29-25, when Centennial turned up the pressure and intensity to begin their best stretch of the night. While the Railers failed to connect on some easy looks, both 2- and 3-pointers, Centennial used their toughness to go on a 13-2 run with all made baskets inside the paint.

Easy shots leading to a hard lesson.

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder, and we didn't do that in the third," Alexander said. "We played soft, and if we do that the rest of the week, or the rest of the season, it will be tough."

Steven Lee and Finke combined to score 14 points in the quarter for the Chargers as they dominated the boards and inside play to take a 38-31 lead. The three free throws from Block stopped the run and began the momentum swing back to the Railers. Bowlby hit a 3 to pull Lincoln to within one at 38-37. After Block hit the 3 to give the lead back to the tournament hosts, no one scored again until the 1:55 mark, when Max Cook converted on a driving layup and free throw after being fouled.

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The drive and conversion by Cook was a rare sight from the Railers on Monday night. Many times throughout the contest, Lincoln penetrated to the rim but would kick the ball out for an open 3, passing up easy shots in the lane.

Up 43-38, Centennial continued to struggle as the Railer pressure was turned up a gear, thanks to Will Cook and Joey Olden. Both were instrumental in forcing turnovers that led to points during the course of the game. Lincoln's last six points came from the line as Block hit four more and Max Cook hit a pair. It wasn't until late in the quarter that Finke laid in Centennial's only points of the quarter.

As Olden dribbled it out as the clock sounded, the season got off to a good start, but with plenty of things for the coaching staff to work on. If one word could describe what the focus of instruction may be, it would be tough.

"If you're not tough today, you're not going to be able to be tough in March," Alexander said.

One game down, a season's worth to go. The Railers are happy to have the win, but the coaching staff may just show them the third quarter. Lincoln was able to escape with the one bad quarter on Monday night. However, the competition they are yet to face the rest of the week, not to mention the rest of the season, may not afford them the luxury of having a bad stretch.

Along with Block's 22 and Max Cook's 14 points, Bowlby added five, with Horchem and Will Cook scoring three each. Adam Conrady added the only other two for the Railers.

The next game is Wednesday night as Lincoln will play host to Morton. Game time is set for 7:30 and will give anyone out there who needs one a good excuse to not be able to help out with preparing the Thanksgiving feast.

Morton fell to Cahokia 69-61 in the night's first game, while newcomer Chicago Harlan held on to beat Danville 72-70.

___

LINCOLN (49)

Block 4-11 11-12 22, M.Cook 4-6 4-4 14, Bowlby 2-6 0-0 5, Horchem 1-4 0-0 3, W.Cook 1-2 1-2 3, Conrady 1-2 0-0 2, Olden 0-0 0-0 0, Ebelherr 0-1 0-0 0, Krusz 0-1 0-0 0. Team 13-33 16-18 49.
3-point field goals, 7-21 (Block 3-8, M.Cook 2-4, Bowlby 1-4, Horchem 1-4, Ebelherr 0-1).

CENTENNIAL (40)

Finke 14, Lee 10, Howard 8, Byrd 6, Toombs 2. Team 16 4-4 40.
3-point field goals, 4 (Finke 2, Howard 2).

[By JEFF BENJAMIN]

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