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
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
"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
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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
I know I wouldn't want to miss it.
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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