By John Goralski
On Thursday, March 13, the Wildcats trailed by 22 points late in the second half when Jordan Taylor battled for two offensive rebounds before drawing a foul. That’s when Lincoln College players began to show the reason why they were one of eight teams vying for a national title.
Over the next three minutes four different Lincoln players scored, and the Wildcats trimmed the deficit within one point of single digits. Taylor converted both free throws to start the 15-3 rally. Kojo Lockhart, Jalen David, and Dairyon Davis scored layups and jumper. Kyre Jackson grabbed a rebound and an assist. Davis and Baboucarr Bah scored steals, and Davis secured a three pointer.
Like they’ve done all season, teamwork was the main component for the comeback.
“More often you see it at the four-year schools,” said Wildcat coach Preston Beverly. “At the junior college level it’s something you don’t see as often. You’re only here for two years. Ultimately, you’re trying to get noticed by another school, so it’s easy for a student-athlete to think about themselves, their points, or this and that. With this group we didn’t have any of that. It was about team and how we can do better.”
For three days, Lincoln was indoctrinated into the elite ranks of the national tournament. They drew the defending national champions in the first round for a matchup between a four-time tournament contender and the rookie of the group. The second round pitted them against the fourth ranked team in the nation, and the final bout was against a team that has amassed 44 national titles in 11 different sports.
In each contest, the Wildcats fell behind by a tough margin in the early minutes. Each time they went toe-to-toe the rest of the way. They lost by 10 to Brookdale Community College. They lost by eight point to Nassau Community College and by six in the finale with Herkimer County Community College, but there was no disappointment from the first-year coach when he addressed his team at the end of the tournament.
“We were a little disheartened as a group. We wanted to do better, but just the fact that we made it here is so incredible,” said Beverly. “Everybody’s been so excited for our players, our program, and our school because this is such a big win for us.”
The Wildcats entered the contest ranked last in the field. Even the announcers brushed off the Southington junior college during their national television broadcasts. Lincoln was the underdog with no gym and limited practices. In pregame interviews Beverly was peppered with questions about the program’s short history, limited resources, and the fact that it wasn’t too long ago that Lincoln College teams were forced to practice outdoors in winter conditions.
The first-year coach took it all in stride.
“I haven’t seen another school with 750 students making it to this stage,” he said. “Brookdale has been here time and time again, and they’re somewhere in the 10,000 realm. Rock Valley won it all, and they have a large campus in Illinois with a 4,500 seat arena. You’re dealing with schools that are larger than us by thousands. It makes me proud of my institution. I’m proud of our student-athletes with all the hard work that they put in.”
Lincoln struggled at the start of each contest. In the opener, they fell behind 10-0 to Brookdale before matching them point for point the rest of the way. Chris Austin finished with 15 points. Lockhart scored 13 points, three steals, and two blocks. Davis added 12 points. David and Taylor scored 10 points apiece, and Jackson finished with nine points and eight boards.
Lincoln out-rebounded their opponent, 44-36. The Wildcats forced 21 turnovers, and the defense rallied for 12 steals. If it wasn’t for shooting woes early in the game, Lincoln may have been able to pull off an upset, and that was a trend that continued throughout the tournament.
“I thought we executed our game plan really well. It’s just that they were so hot in the first half. They definitely cooled off in the second half. We just couldn’t make a bucket,” said the coach. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Shots literally touched every part of the rim, but they wouldn’t fall. They just kept popping out, popping out, and popping out.”
On Friday, the trend continued as Nassau rolled to a 9-1 lead before Lincoln scored their first basket. Once again, the Wildcats battled toe-to-toe after the slow start. Lincoln out-rebounded the Lions, 50-46. They forced 13 turnovers and secured six steals.
Lockhart (11 rebounds) and Bah scored 12 points apiece. David added 10 points and three steals. Once again, Lincoln trailed by eight points in the opening minutes, and that deficit carried to the end of a 68-60 loss.
“It was a slow start, but we still had the fight,” Beverly said. “Our guys don’t back down from anybody. We went into the game thinking that we had a great chance at winning. We executed our game plan, but it just came down to the ball falling.
On Saturday, it happened again. Herkimer raced out to a 6-0 lead. Lincoln rallied for six straight points to tie the game, 6-6, but the Generals opened up a 12 point lead and held on for a 101-94 win. Lincoln trimmed the deficit to just three points midway through the first half and matched their opponent basket for basket after the break.
Jackson paced the offense with 20 points. Lockhart added 18. Austin scored 15, while David and Bah contributed 10 points apiece. Lincoln out-rebounded their opponent, 45-40, but lost in a shootout, 101-94.
“We’ve been going through the same thing all season—slow starts, but we’re a second half team,” said Beverly. “In the second halves, we got off some great runs. We were down but not out. We fought the whole way through. We had great team defense. We out-rebounded everybody we played. To be the smallest school and still be able to do that really speaks volumes to the character of our individuals and the fight that they all have.”
The loss to Herkimer ended Lincoln’s unheralded run, but the Wildcats (23-9) will return nine players next winter. The tournament marked the final games for Taylor, Austin, Campbell, and Bah, but Beverly expects all four of them to find homes in four-year institutions. Ultimately, that’s the biggest win for the up and coming program.
“There were schools throughout the season that showed interest in them,” said the coach. “They were Division II or Division III teams. At the tournament, I started receiving more callls and texts from coaches that were interested in them. This was such great exposure for them, and people saw how hard they played against really good talent. I look forward to finding out which schools they attend because I think they are going to be pillars in those communities.”
The season marked many firsts for the up-and-coming program. Despite their size, the Wildcats rallied for their first Region XXI championship and their first District 8 title. The team’s GPA (2.93) was the highest of any previous season. In his first year at the helm, Beverly was awarded Coach of the Year honors in the district. Beverly expects that trend to continue, too.
“One of the things I’m most proud about is our grades and the fact that we have the same team that started in the fall that finished with us this late in March, and their hard work brought us to the national touranment. I give a lot of credit to the student-athletes and their parents and guardians.They did a phenomenal job raising these kids. I give a lot of credit to the school and the support that we received from the college,” he said. “We definitely plan on being back next year.”
Score one for the little guy.
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By John Goralski