Lincolnton took its best shot against one of the Midwest 2A Conference`s elite teams Friday at home and came up short.
But the Wolves and their head coach, Bob Cowie, did not spend much time dwelling on the 78-64 loss to Newton-Conover.
The focus of attention turned immediately to two huge road games this week, at Chase on Tuesday and at West Lincoln on Friday.
Even though the Wolves are 0-4 against the top three teams in the standings–East Rutherford, Shelby and Newton-Conover–they find themselves in fourth place (4-4, 6-11 overall) and very much in the running for a state playoff bid.
Lincolnton beat Chase and West Lincoln in the first round of league play, and the Wolves also defeated Bandys and Bunker Hill. If they can do the same in the second round, that should be enough to secure the league`s fourth and final postseason berth.
That fact was not lost on junior guard Zack Gibson, who did his best to help his team pull an upset with a career-high 29 points.
“Newton-Conover is good, but we have to look to Chase and West Lincoln,” said Gibson. “That is what we have got to do if we want to make it to the playoffs.”
Despite the loss, the Wolves held on to sole possession of fourth place thanks to Shelby`s one-point win Friday over Bandys, which kept the Trojans in fifth place at 3-5.
Lincolnton will be favored this week on the road against the seventh and eighth place teams, but Cowie knows it will be a challenge.
“I don`t expect either one of them to be easy. When you talk about must wins, that is what we have at Chase and at West Lincoln,” Cowie said.
And even though Lincolnton will go on the road, neither Chase nor West Lincoln has an athletic 6-foot-8 Division I recruit on the roster.
The Red Devils had an advantage in the presence of Clemson-signee Julius Powell, and that was the difference as the Red Devils improved to 6-2 in the conference (14-4 overall) and remained in a second-place tie with Shelby.
Powell scored 17 points in the win, but it was his work on defense and on the defensive boards that did in the Wolves.
Midway through the first quarter, Newton-Conover coach Steve Lytton switched from a man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone, with Powell patrolling the lane in the middle of the zone.
Not long after the change of strategy, the Red Devils took control, moving out to a 19-13 lead after one quarter and extending the margin to double digits in the second period.
The zone defense did two things: it prevented the Wolves from getting their running game in gear, and it shut down the lane on penetration drives to the basket.
“I thought the zone slowed them down somewhat,” said Lytton. “And with Julius (Powell) in the middle, he does a lot as far as changing and altering shots. He also gets good position to get some defensive rebounds.”
How intimidating was Powell`s long arms and size in the paint? The Wolves` entire front line scored only three field goals, and all of those came on offensive rebounds by Jamell Jefferies.
Lance Friday, Lincolnton`s most effective inside scorer, had trouble shooting and driving over Powell and finished with no field goals and five points at the line.
With Lincolnton`s inside attack throttled by Powell and Newton-Conover dictating the tempo, Gibson did his best to rally the Wolves from a 38-24 halftime deficit.
Gibson put together the best eight-minute stretch of his career in the third quarter, going 9-for-9 from the field for 22 points. Gibson scored on drives to the basket, runners in the lane and long-range shots. Among his run of nine straight baskets were three 3-pointers.
With Gibson unable to miss, the Wolves cut the lead to single digits and got as close as 49-42 on a running one-hander by Gibson with three minutes left in the quarter.
But the Red Devils answered with a basket and went on to push the lead back to double digits. After absoring the Lincolnton run, Newton-Conover maintained a 10-to-14 point lead the rest of the way.
In the fourth quarter, Newton-Conover clamped down on Gibson and held the hot-shooting guard to five points on 1-for-4 from the field and 3-for-4 from the line.
Guard Marcus Shuford led Newton-Conover in scoring with 19 points. Antonio Lyerly added 13 points, nine from behind the arc, and Graham Hauss had 10 on 5-for-7 shooting.
Asked about his third-quarter explosion, Gibson said, “I only had two points in the first half, so I knew I had to come out and lead my team. I am the leading scorer, so I had to score.”
The problem was that no one else could generate much offense against Powell and the 2-3 zone. Jefferies was the next leading scorer with 10.
Newton-Conover 14 25 10 17-76
Lincolnton 10 21 15 20-80
RED DEVILS: Marcus Shuford 19, Antonio Lyerly 13, Julius Powell 17, Graham Hauss 10, Harold 5, Royall 6, Ferguson 8.
WOLVES: Zack Gibson 29, Demory Williams 8, Dusty Friday 6, Lance Friday 5, Dustin Metts 2, Kyle Snyder 4, Jamell Jefferies 10.
Jessie Cline led the Lady Wolves with 14 points in a 30-28 loss to the Red Devils. A three-pointer at the buzzer would have given Lincolnton the upset victory. Joseph Brymer / LTN Photo
Newton-Conover 30, Lincolnton 28–The Lady Wolves (6-11, 0-8 Midwest 2A) had a chance to pull the upset, but Shonda Faw missed a 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer, and Newton-Conover (11-7, 6-2) escaped with the win.
Trailing 20-12 at the break, Lincolnton outscored N-C 12-4 in the third quarter to tie the game at 24. No more than two points separated the teams in the final eight minutes.
Jessie Cline of Lincolnton was the game`s top scorer with 14 points.
Newton-Conover 14 6 4 6-30
Lincolnton 5 7 12 4-28
RED DEVILS: Deal 7, Crenshaw 6, Johnson 3, Robinson 6, Hester 8.
WOLVES: Brittany Jones 8, Jessie Cline 14, Shanda Faw 6.
by Mike Powell