Monday, January 20, 2014
 
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Second verse, same as the first  Railers drop another one 55-52

By Jeff Benjamin

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[January 20, 2014]  Second verse, same as the first. And Railer Nation is feeling a little bit worse.

On a night when the Lincoln Railers were hoping to begin the second half of the regular season with a win, extend a home-court winning streak to 19 games and help head coach Neil Alexander reach the 700-win plateau, the Maroons from Champaign Central had other ideas and walked out with a 55-52 upset victory over the second-ranked Railers. The loss, following the overtime defeat the night before to Lanphier by the same score, was more disappointing as Lincoln never seemed to find the right gears, either offensively or defensively.

"The hardest things to do in basketball are rebound and defend," a dejected coach Alexander said after the game. "Tonight, we did neither. We didn't get out on their shooters; we allowed the ball inside too easily. I don't know, maybe we just aren't as good as we thought we were."

The loss drops Lincoln to 14-2 on the season. The Railers have not had a two-game losing streak since February of 2012. There will not be much time to try to fix whatever the causes are as the Railers have five games over the next six days by participating in the County Market Classic in Jacksonville, starting with tonight's game against an improved Taylorville squad.

The Railers were done in by one of their weapons, the 3-point shot. Central (9-7) shot 56 percent from long range on the night, led by Sean Suggs. The 22 points from the senior included 6-of-9 shooting behind the arc, most of them lightly contested shots.

Suggs got the scoring started for the visitors, while Gavin Block, on his way to another 20-plus-point performance, tied the game at 3-3. After a free throw, the Railers scored the next seven on a 3 from Edward Bowlby, a nice crossover dribble-drive layup by Joey Olden and an alley-oop lob from Max Cook to Bowlby. After trading baskets, the Railers extended to their largest lead of the night at nine on 3s from Olden and Cook. Up 18-9, the Railers watched Central play the patience game, working the final seconds of the first-quarter clock. Getting exactly what they wanted, Central hit a last-second 3 by Kameron Rowan to leave the margin at six going into the second quarter at 18-12.

The momentum and open shots for Central continued to start the second quarter as Suggs hit two in a row from 3-point range to quickly tie the game at 18. A 3 from Olden, Lincoln's only basket of the second quarter, put the home team back on top at 21-18. Central, certainly not feeling the pressure of playing the No. 2 team in the state, grabbed the lead on baskets by Davion Watson and Isiah Smith. A pair of free throws from Block allowed the Railers to take a slim one-point lead into halftime.

The first part of the third quarter was back-and-forth with no team getting a lead bigger than four. That was when Bowlby connected for a 3 to start the half and put the Railers up 26-22. After a 3 from Noah Wells, a traditional three-point play from Block, on his way to a game-high 25 points, pushed the margin back to four. Just unable to force turnovers and convert them into points, the Railers struggled to make Central uncomfortable. A quick five in a row put the Maroons back on top 32-30. And, when given a chance to seize the momentum and keep it, Lincoln did not do it.

Expressing his displeasure more than the officials appreciated, Central coach Wayne McClain was hit with a technical at the 3:06 mark. Block split the technical free throws, and on the ensuing possession, Cook put the Railers back on top with a layup at 33-32. Four more free throws from Block and Olden put Lincoln on top 37-32. It was their last good stretch of basketball on the night.

Using a Railer-like 14-1 run over the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter, the Maroons humbled Lincoln to a 46-38 deficit. The points came way too easily, whether it was more open 3-pointers or easy baskets underneath. It seemed every time you turned around, Central's Watson found his way all alone under the basket behind the Lincoln defense, and his teammates found him. Watson scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Down by eight, their largest deficit of the season at 48-40, Lincoln began their final push. A 3-pointer from Block brought Lincoln to within five. Another easy Central basket was answered by a 3 from Cook. Unfortunately, the Lincoln defense could not force Central into many mistakes and could not put together a run to get back on top. Down 52-46, Block was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three shots to make it a one-possession game. After a rare Maroon turnover, Block's drive to the basket would not go down, but again he stepped to the line and converted. The junior finished 13 of 16 from the line.

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After Central's Wesley Dee hit a pair of free throws, Block split a pair with 27 seconds remaining. Lincoln got the ball back on another turnover, but the lid on the basket was just too tight. A layup from Cook rolled off, the tip try by Bowlby went off, and then Bowlby grabbed the rebound, but that putback would not go. Central pulled down the rebound and was fouled.

Lincoln's final attempt came when Rowan made the first but missed the second free throw with five seconds left. Block grabbed the rebound, dribbled upcourt against two defenders and fired a shot from the left wing. As his shot fell harmlessly short, a glance at coach Alexander seemed to indicate the ball was some way, somehow supposed to end up in the right corner for the shot. It did not, and a hush fell over Roy S. Anderson Gymnasium.

Home winning streak over. Number 700 still on hold. Losing streak in place at two.

"We're going the wrong way," Alexander said, "and we have to find a way to fix it, but we don't have much time."

Was fatigue a factor? After the physical and emotional drain of the Friday night game, only six Railers played in this one. Four starters played all 32 minutes, while Tyler Horchem and Payton Ebelherr split the other time.

Did the Railers peak at Collinsville? I confidently say no. During the tournament down south, they played as well as they have all year, and I trust this coaching staff and team to get back to that spot. Don't ever count out a team led by this coaching staff.

However, the coaches can only do so much, and these players want to prove how good they are. There is nothing being said that they haven't already thought about this funk they are in. Remember, they are the ones who have put in all the work during the summer and practices, and they will not let this troubled time continue.

The Lincoln Railers will pull themselves up and get back to the team we know they can be. They will get back up the mountain. As the song says, "the Good Lord gave us mountains so we'll know how to climb." The Railers will climb and, when they do, they may climb higher even than they expected.

And Railer Nation, what can you do? Simply be Railer Nation. I think we know what that means.

Block led the way again for the Railers with 25 points, six rebounds and five steals. Olden reached double figures with 10, while Cook added nine and Bowlby scored 8. It's nice to see what Block can do, but more balance in the scoring column will be one of the ingredients to get the team back to their winning ways.

So, now a busy week is upon us. Game one of the County Market Classic is tonight at 6:30 against Taylorville. For the first time, the tournament will be played at The Bowl in Jacksonville. Lincoln will also play Wednesday at 6:30 versus Quincy Notre Dame, Friday at 8 versus Jacksonville, and Saturday at 11:30 a.m. versus Rochester and at 8 p.m. versus Glenwood.

The Railers have played well in tournaments this year. Although it seems like a lot of basketball at a time when the team is down, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

___

LINCOLN (52)

Block 5-12 13-16 25, Olden 3-5 2-2 10, MCook 3-8 1-2 9, Bowlby 3-11 0-0 8, Horchem 0-1 0-0 0, Ebelherr 0-1 0-0 0. Team 14-30 16-20 52. 3-point field goals 8-22 (Cook 2-3, Olden 2-4, Block 2-7, Bowlby 2-7, Horchem 0-1).

CHAMPAIGN CENTRAL (55)

Suggs 22, Watons 10, Rowan 9, Wells 6, Dee 5, Smith 2, Beesley 1. Team 20-35 5-10 55. 3-point field goals 10-18 (Suggs 6, Wells 2, Rowan 2).

Lincoln     18-5-14-15    52
Central     12-10-13-20  55

[By JEFF BENJAMIN]

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