After serving as cellar dwellers the last two years, the East Lincoln Mustangs are a step closer to qualifying for the 3A State Basketball Playoffs after beating the Forestview Jaguars 51-46 Tuesday night in the opening round of the Big South 3A Conference Tournament.
The staple of East Lincolnâ€™s team is their solid man-to-man defense. Tuesdayâ€™s game at East Gaston was no different, limiting Forestview to four made three-pointers.
â€œOur ability to shut them down on defense was the difference. We made it tough on them to score and got a couple of key stops in the final minutes,â€ Mustangsâ€™ head coach Neil Hodges said.
The Mustangs will face conference champion East Gaston (19-4, 10-4) Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in their third meeting of the season. The Warriors won the last meeting 61-54 to spoil East Lincolnâ€™s senior night. The game was closer than the indicated as East Gaston won in the final two minutes.
Hodges acknowledges his team gives up some things in their aggressive man-to-man defense, but he also believes over the past month their intensity has picked up.
â€œWeâ€™ve lost to them twice in really close games both times. Itâ€™s a tough match-up because of their size, but weâ€™re playing really good team defense. All five of those guys can score. Itâ€™s a balanced team and the way we play team defense we usually give up a little something,â€ he said.
â€œHopefully we can figure out a way to limit those. Weâ€™ll have to come up with a good, solid game plan and come out and execute it,â€ Hodges added..
Darin Dellinger and Steven Waycaster paced their respective teams with 16 points apiece. Jamelle Lowery, Dellingerâ€™s backcourt mate, added 10. Carlos Marquez-Sykes chipped in with nine.
Hodges was proud of all three after the game.
â€œThey (Darin and Jamelle) both had a good game and played well defensively. We spread the ball around a little bit. It was a low-scoring affair and I think thatâ€™s when we play best,â€ he said.
Stephen Hungate finished with 11 in the contest.
Had Hunter Huss not beaten Ashbrook and North Gaston not upset Berry Academy, the Mustangs would have wrapped up the final berth for the 3A State Playoffs. Now they face the formidable task of playing the conference champs in their back yard.
If East Lincoln upsets the Warriors, then wins the tournament, it will be the first time theyâ€™ve qualified for the playoffs since 1999.
On the flip side, if the Huskies get past North Gaston and the Mustangs lose on Thursday, Hunter would snatch the last berth.
For another day the Mustangs are going to relish getting the job done in the first round.
â€œIt was a great team victory because Forestview is a good team,â€ Hodges said.
East Lincoln 12 13 9 17-51
Forestview 12 7 9 18-46
MUSTANGS: Darin Dellinger 16, Jamelle Lowery 10, C. Marquez-Sykes 9, W. White 5, J. Davis 4, N. Harmon 3, T. Huntley 2, D. Carter 2.
JAGUARS: Waycaster 16, Hungate 11, Farley 11, Payne 5, Guffey 3.
by John Mark Brooks