MATTOON – Lincoln rolled in here in its custom white painted school bus some two hours in advance of its game.
Its players sat in a corner of the stands during an earlier girls game, gazing out at the court where it would, once again, try and torture its opponents with a 1-2-2 press, a big reason the Railsplitters entered Friday 17-2 and 8-0 in the Apollo Conference.
Friday’s game at Mattoon, though, lurked as a hazardous one. A game against mighty Lincoln – ranked No. 5 in the state in Class 3A – represented another rung for Mattoon to climb in its winningest season since 1991-92.
Mattoon, sure enough, saw that zone. It almost felled the whole operation and nearly set foot onto that rung.
“That’s a tough team for us to guard because we have to spread our defense so much,” Lincoln coach Neil Alexander said.
In the end, Lincoln didn’t let itself be stood upon.
The Green Wave lost 51-50, despite making 13 3s and assisting on all but three of their made field goals. In choosing to flash cut and pass their way through Lincoln’s zone, they attempted just five free throws. They made four 2-pointers, two of which came in transition.
“We had a couple chances,” Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere said. “Just didn’t go our way tonight.”
The low score suggests an ugly game, but it was quite the opposite. This game was a harvester zipping through a cornfield and leaving no crop unstripped. Both teams played sound defense and combined for just 19 fouls. The first 30 minutes of game time breezed by in about an hour. There were few turnovers. The scoreless possessions simply ended in missed shots.
Jadyn Princko, in a rare non-start, led Mattoon with 17 points. Jacob Spitz added 12.
Lincoln had 18 points from Kaden Froebe. The Railsplitters did not have 6-foot-10 center Jermaine Hamlin available. It felt weird watching them without him patrolling the middle of the zone, though an opponent that primarily shot 3s would have limited his impact.
Nine of those 3s came in the first half. Lincoln coach Neil Alexander countered by raising the top of his defense further out onto the perimeter to take away some space. It worked, especially in the fourth quarter. The shots hit more rims and less netting.
You have free articles remaining.
With its first-half bugaboo restrained, Lincoln forced Mattoon into more dribbling and four fourth-quarter turnovers.
“They pretty much had three guys on the perimeter all the time by the arc,” Ghere said. “We just didn’t get as many open looks.”
Dalton Compton made a corner 3-pointer with 49 seconds left to pull Mattoon within a point. Mattoon fouled three times to put Lincoln’s Dylan Singleton at the line. He missed the first free throw and gave Mattoon a chance to win. Jake Ghere’s corner jumper from just inside the 3-point line missed long with 1.5 seconds left. An incredulous Ryan Ghere popped up and barked, “he was fouled!”
Lincoln, though, gave the ball right back when Singleton was called for an off-ball foul on the inbound. Mattoon’s own inbound pass bounced off a leaping Jaydon Noe’s fingertips and into the arms of a Lincoln defender.
“Just missed it,” Ghere said. “Just mistimed our jump.”
Mattoon trailed for nearly all of the second half, though never by more than 6 points. Lincoln’s lead reached 41-35 with 2:48 left in the third quarter when Froebe made a tiebreaking 3-pointer and then a trio of free throws.
Jaydon Noe gave Mattoon a brief 44-43 lead with 5:43 left in the fourth with a steal and transition 3-point play. Lincoln regained it a minute later, when the press beguiled Noe into a turnover near half-court. Mattoon traveled on its next possession.
Mattoon began a clinical attack on the zone when Ghere stuck Sam Bradbury or Jake Ghere right in the middle of it. The ball found them, and once the defense rotated to help, they kicked it back out, usually to an open shooter.
After the opening blitz, the shots became more contested and stopped falling for a few moments. Mattoon went from the 2:36 mark of the first quarter to 3:46 of the second without making a 3 and scored just once, on a Jake Ghere mid-range jumper that was the Green Wave’s only non-3 basket of the half.
They returned, though, with the same ferocity. Jacob Spitz’s 3 followed by three consecutive Princko triples gave Mattoon a 29-28 halftime lead.
“Anytime we got the ball to the free throw line and they collapsed, we had open shooters on the perimeter,” Ghere said. “In the first half we just knocked them down.”