By John Goralski
The first few shots clinked off the rim as Lincoln College fell behind, 4-1, on Sunday, March 2 in the Region XXI finals at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. Passes tipped off fingers. Open shots were contested by Springfield Tech. Coach Preston Beverly motioned to officials for an early timeout, and he gathered his team to lay down the gauntlet.
“I asked them if they got their butterflies out already,” said the first-year coach. “This is a championship game, and a lot of our guys have never been in a championship before. This is a big stage, and they really wanted to play well. We just had to get our nerves out. After that, we were just rocking and rolling.”
It happened in a whirlwind blur that left Springfield Tech fans deadly silent. Two fast break layups led to an open jumpshot. When Jalen David leapt over a defender for a slam dunk, it was the Springfield Tech coaches that signaled for a timeout.
Lincoln had turned the deficit into a 9-4 lead, and the Wildcats were just getting warmed up.
“I didn’t expect this at all. Every game that we’ve played against Springfield has been a tight game,” said Beverly. “The first time we played them at their place, we won by five or six, and that was after coming back after being down by double digits. At our place, we won by one. I think this just really came down to our guys being prepared. We were focused, and we were ready.”
Four different Wildcats scored in double digits. David (8 rebounds) and Kyre Jackson (12 rebounds) scored 18 points apiece. Chris Austin finished with 17 points and 12 assists, while Kojo Lockhart contributed 13 points and seven rebounds.
Lincoln opened up a 21 point lead at the half and cruised to an 87-68 victory. With 5:20 remaining, the Wildcats led by 30 points. Lincoln shooters shot 50.9 percent in the contest and 84.4 percent from the free throw line.
“We play a team game. We’ve been playing it year round, but I think that today was the culmination,” said Beverly. “We were just knocking down everything, and when we weren’t knocking it down we were able to get our own rebound and finish it.”
The game came on the heels of a 25-point victory over Roxbury CC in the semifinals on Saturday. Jackson anchored the attack with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but Lincoln had five players in double digits. The Wildcats raced out to a 41-27 lead at the half and held on for an 84-69 win.
Austin (11 assists) and Dairyon Davis (6 assists) combined for 14 points apiece. David and Lockhart both scored 12 points with eight rebounds. The victory thrust the Wildcats into their first regional finals.
“It was a real battle, and the score isn’t really indicative,” said Beverly. “Every time that we would go up, Roxbury would just battle back. We would go up by 12, and they would fight back to cut it to six. We would go up 15, and they’d cut it to four. We maintained the lead the whole time, but it was really back and forth. There was no quit in those guys.”
With the victories, Lincoln improved to 23-6. It marked the first regional title for the school and will kick off their first NJCAA national tournament invitation. Now, the team will regroup for t Division III championship, March 13-15, at Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, NY. Lincoln will be one of eight teams vying for a national title. The first round game of the double-elimination tournament is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. on Thursday.
Beverly said that it’s a great opportunity for the school and the program. The team has already garnered attention for their 2.93 team GPA. Now, they’re making a name for themselves on the court.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, but this is a wonderful feeling. I love this for our kids and our college,” said Beverly. “We’re in the nationals, baby. Now, we’ve got to prepare for whoever we’ll face. I haven’t seen who else has won their district, but the first round is our next goal.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.