Saturday, March 22, 2014
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Three-pointers and a strong defense put Lincoln in the state final

By Jeff Benjamin

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[March 22, 2014]  PEORIA If you thought there weren't many people in town on Friday, just wait until Saturday. Why, you ask? The Lincoln Railers are playing for the state championship.

The Railers came up big when they needed it most at Peoria's Carver Arena during the first semifinal game on Friday, closing on a 14-5 run to knock off Rockford Lutheran 45-42 and advance to Saturday's state championship game against defending state champion Chicago Morgan Park. The win sets the school record for wins in a season with 34 and puts Lincoln one step away from getting those signs on the outside of town welcoming folks to the home of the state champions.

Rockford Lutheran's Thomas Kopelman put the Crusaders up 42-40 with his fourth 3 of the day at the 1:56 mark of the final quarter. After a missed 3 by Max Cook and a turnover from the Crusaders, Gavin Block put Lincoln ahead for good with 55 seconds remaining with a 3 from the top of the key. After a Lutheran timeout, the Crusaders' attempt to hold for a possible final shot was interrupted by a steal from Payton Ebelherr. Having been not whistled for many fouls in the second half, the Crusaders were forced to foul the Railers in order to send them to the line.

With 25 seconds left, it was senior Joey Olden who calmly, at least on the outside, sank the first, then the second free throw to put the Railers up 45-42. After getting the ball to half-court, the Crusaders called a timeout to set up a final play. Up three, there was discussion about the possibility the Railers might think about fouling guard James Robinson, who had struggled all game, including missing both of his free throws earlier in the contest. During the later stages of the timeout, Rockford Lutheran coach Tom Guse tried to substitute Ryan Dolan into the contest in place of Robinson. However, because Dolan was not at the scorer's table in time during the timeout, he was not allowed to enter, and Robinson was sent back into the game.

With the Railers calling on their defense one more time, Olden came away with a steal with seconds to go and got the ball to Block, who was fouled. The second-team all-stater stepped to the line to secure the victory. The game had not been easy, so why should the last 6.2 seconds. Block missed the free throw off the front of the rim, and Nate Wieting grabbed the last of his 12 rebounds, tossing it to Kopelman. The Lincoln defense did not give the leading scorer for the Crusaders (30-4) any room as he maneuvered into the frontcourt, and his forced and off-balance 3 from the right wing did not find the mark. As Edward Bowlby cradled the rebound, the buzzer sounded, the Railer fans in attendance went nuts, and Lincoln began making plans to watch their team vie for the state championship.

When it comes to defense, Lincoln coach Neil Alexander knows how important it is to this team.

"We play our 1-2-2 ball press, and our Lincoln kids are very proud of our defense, Alexander said. "I think our defense was very important in our win."

Just another day of Railer basketball.

Yes, the discussion will be about the number of 3s Lincoln attempted in the game (32), but it was defense that won this game. The Railers scored 13 points off 11 Lutheran turnovers in the second half, turning around the first half, when Lincoln did not score a single point off a Crusader miscue.

I think sometimes it is easy to forget how lucky we are to have the experience on this coaching staff, and when it comes to adjustments, you can count on them to give this team the best chance of winning.

"When we were behind, we moved our defense up and trapped high instead of laying back," Alexander explained. "Once we got the lead, we continued to do it. It worked for us. The two big steals were very important."

The Railers got off to a good start from long range, hitting four of their first seven shots, building a 12-7 advantage. Tyler Horchem got the scoring started with a 3, only to have Weiting answer back. After a Bowlby miss, Olden's offensive rebound ended up in the hands of Cook, who drained a 3 to put Lincoln up 6-2. Kopelman, who came into the game with over 100 made 3s on the season, hit his first shot of the day, only to have Horchem stay hot with his second 3, and the Lincoln lead was 9-5.

Olden's first 3 extended the margin to five before Bowlby scored on a transition basket as Cook found Block in the lane, who flipped the ball over to a cutting Bowlby, and Lincoln was in front 14-7. The Railers continued their hot start after Block split a pair of free throws, and Lincoln ran their end-of-quarter set to perfection as Cook hit a 3 from the right corner as the first quarter came to an end with Lincoln up 18-10. The offense had equaled the points they scored in the first half in the supersectional win over Cahokia.

As well as the Railers played in the first quarter, they struggled that much in the second. Making the early 3s may have made them 3-happy as the majority of their shots came from behind the arc. But unlike the first quarter, those shots were not going down. A team like the eighth-ranked Crusaders was not going to sit by and let this opportunity go by.

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Jumpers by Weiting and Robinson brought Lutheran back to down just four at 18-14. Block scored half of Lincoln's points for the quarter by hitting two of three free throws after being fouled. The 3-pointer was a main part of the offense for the Crusaders, and they struck twice, Kopelman and Kendall Lawson, to tie the game at 20. The inside presence of Weiting was a problem for the Railers all day, and his basket with 1:35 left in the half put the Crusaders up for the first time. Bowlby tied the game at 22, only to see Kopelman get the lead back with another 3. The shooting woes continued until the halftime buzzer sounded, with Lincoln missing their last three shots, all within the final 44 seconds.

Lincoln's three-point deficit at the half was only the second time this season they have trailed at the half. The Railers have made a habit of getting, and then extending, leads. If a chance at the state title was in the cards, Lincoln would have to find a way to fix their issues.

It didn't take long for Lutheran to build on their lead with an early score from Weiting that gave them a five-point lead. A drive to the basket by Olden cut the lead to three. With most of Lincoln's offense focused on the 3, it became apparent that if this team was going to hang in the game, they would have to find a way to get to the basket and score on the inside. The Crusaders kept Lincoln at bay with another score by Weiting. Lincoln's defense had difficulty with Weiting as it seemed they went to block his shot instead of being in the right spot defensively.

Block, who led the Railers with 16 points, scored the game's next five to bring the Railers even at 29, the last 3 coming off a steal by Cook. Just when it felt the momentum was swinging back to the Railers, the Crusaders pounded the ball inside for two consecutive conventional three-point plays from Kopelman and Joseph Kellen, and the Railers (34-2) found themselves down six again. Block scored again, but it was Weiting again hitting the putback to make the margin six at 37-31. Lincoln again could not find the mark from 3-point range, missing three as well as another layup. Of course, Lutheran had their chances to stretch the lead but missed one putback after another.

The final Railer run started with about 1:14 left in the third when Will Cook hit a 3-pointer to draw Lincoln to within three at 37-34. With eight minutes to go before the first state finalist was decided, Railer Nation came to its feet. Both teams could not score through the early stages of the fourth quarter, but a Max Cook steal with about five minutes to go led to a 3 from the right wing by Olden and game was tied at 37. The Railers were able to take the lead about 90 seconds later when Block hit two free throws and Lincoln went up 39-37. Just as Lincoln's leading scorer gave the Railers the lead from the line, Kopelman was fouled and converted a pair to even the score at 39, setting up the game's heart-stopping final two minutes.

In their next-to-last game of the season, the Railers put two players in double figures with Block scoring 16 and Olden adding 10. Max Cook and Horchem each had six while Bowlby scored four and Will Cook chipped in with a huge 3-pointer. Block's scoring for the day leaves him one point shy of the 1,000 career points plateau, something he will reach on Saturday (if not, things may not go well for the Railers). Bowlby grabbed six rebounds as the Railers held their own in the rebound battle, trailing only 29-21 on the boards.

So, it has come to this. One more game. The final game of the 3A season, and it will be the Lincoln Railers taking on Chicago's Morgan Park, a 52-46 winner over Chicago Orr. No matter what happens on Saturday, the Railers will bring home the best finish for boys basketball in the school's history. All the summer games, the early mornings shooting free throws, the practices where they run the play until they get it right and then run it again. It has come down to 32 minutes of basketball before someone raises the big trophy and takes the title of state champion.

We would all love to see that team be your Lincoln Railers. If you can make it to Peoria, it's an easy drive. Based on Friday's attendance, there are tickets available. Come watch as history could be made.

I know I wouldn't want to miss it.

___

LINCOLN (45)

Block 4-10 6-10 16, Olden 3-4 2-2 10, M.Cook 2-10 0-0 6, Horchem 2-4 0-0 6, Bowlby 2-11 0-0 4, W.Cook 1-2 0-0 3, Ebelherr 0-2 0-0 0. Team 14-43 8-12 45. 3-point field goals 9-32 (Olden 2-3, Horchem 2-4, Block 2-6, M.Cook 2-8, W.Cook 1-2, Ebelherr 0-1, Bowlby 0-8).

ROCKFORD LUTHERAN (42)

Kopelman 17, Weiting 10, Kellen 8, Robinson 4, Lawson 3. Team 15-33 7-9 42. 3-point field goals 5-11 (Kopelman 4, Lawson).

LCHS      18-4-12-11   45
Lutheran   10-15-12-5   42

[By JEFF BENJAMIN]

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