By JOHN GORALSKI
The first of three Wildcats fouled out, but not before he broke up a Sullivan County fast break. A few moments later, two Lincoln College players slid across the floor to smother a loose ball like soldiers hurling themselves on a live grenade.
On Saturday, Nov. 1, Lincoln College trailed by as many as 20 points in the opening half as they battled the No. 5 team in the nation in the season opener.
A brand new championship banner was unfurled on the far wall of the sparkling gym. The Bristol Boys & Girls Club gym hasn’t even been opened to the public, yet they unlocked their doors for the defending Region XXI champs.
On the floor, the next generation was fighting to live up to those high expectations.
“They fought the whole game, and that’s kind of the stamp for Lincoln College teams,” said Wildcat coach Preston Beverly. “We’re just fighters.”
How did it turn out? Not bad for a team that has only two sophomores on its roster.
Lincoln cut the lead to single digits with just over six minutes to go. In the final minute of the game, rookie guard Foday Sankaray converted a three pointer from the left side to pull the Wildcats within 10.
Sullivan County CC is a preseason favorite on the short list of national contenders, but the Wildcats matched them step for step in their first collegiate games. If it wasn’t for 18 missed free throws, Lincoln might have pulled off the upset.
“We are a little banged up, but we really stepped up,” said Beverly. The coach believes that this winter will be characterized by the same competitiveness that put the small, Southington college on the map last year. “We were down 20 at one point, but we were able to cut it to single digits. That heart and fight is going to be our strength.”
Sullivan County posted three players in double digits, but that was matched by Lincoln’s top shooters. Freshman forward Austin Mofunanyo paced the attack with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Rookie guard Derrick Wilson added 16 points, four assists, and three steals. Wayne Weir came off the bench to scored 12 points, and forward Joshua Gause added nine points with seven rebounds.
The team shot 28-for-46 from the floor (43.8 percent) and held that percentage from beyond the arc with seven three pointers in 16 attempts.
“The good thing is that all those mistakes we made today are all correctable,” said the coach. “It isn’t like we don’t have the talent because we do. We definitely have the heart and desire. Now it’s just some Xs and Os stuff. As a coach, that’s what you want to see.”
For local fans, there will be even more opportunities to follow the local squad with a number of home games at the new Bristol facility on West Street. A few of the games will still be played at Courtside in Harwinton, but Beverly said that the partnership with the Bristol Boys & Girls Club has given his program a home.
“They’ve been so great with us, and we’ve really built a good partnership with them,” he said. “Last summer, we had a bunch of our student-athletes and members of our student body serve as mentors. We’ve chaperoned some of their dances, too. We really feel like this is a great relationship for both organizations.”
Of course, it’s the basketball that keeps fans coming. The Wildcats expect to continue to out-rebound and out-hustle regional teams. Beverly isn’t counting out a return to the national games.
“I think we’re just going to see how the region plays out,” he said. “The key for us will be to maintain that togetherness that we saw in the second half today. They are a really close group, but it’s a long season. We played over 30 games last season, and we’re hoping to do the same this year.”
Winter is already heating up at Lincoln College, and Beverly urges local sports fans to see what all the hype is about.
“We’re an exciting team to watch,” he said. “We care about each other. We’re involved in the community, and it’s fun because we keep playing no matter what.”
By JOHN GORALSKI