North Lincoln has come a long way from 1-23.
The Knights, who won one game last year in their first year as a program, will play Maiden tonight at 8 at home in the championship game of the Southern Foothills 1A Conference tournament.
In the upset of the tournament so far, North Lincoln (11-15) surprised No. 2 seed Cherryville 71-56 Wednesday night in the semifinals at Cherryvilleâ€™s Nixon Gym.
Although the Knights are the No. 3 seed in the tournament, their win over Cherryville cast them in the role of the tournamentâ€™s Cinderella team.
And tonight North Lincoln gets a chance to complete its rags to riches story against the top-seeded Blue Devils, who soundly beat the Knights in the two regular season meetings.
The most recent meeting came in the regular season finale on Feb. 11, when Maiden exploded for 96 points on Senior Night at Maiden.
If the Knights can muster the same kind of effort they had against the Ironmen, another upset could be in the making.
North Lincolnâ€™s problem against Maiden will be a decided height disadvantage. However, North Lincoln overcame the same problem against Cherryville, which features a starting front line of 6-6 Brandon Thomas and 6-7 Justin Johnson.
The Knights negated Cherryvilleâ€™s size by using a 3-2 matchup zone that clogged up the passing lanes inside and frustrated the Ironmen into making turnovers and taking bad shots.
North Lincoln definitely won the battle of the backcourts, with guards Trishtan Johnson (18) and Lesharion Johnson (10) combining for 28 points. The Johnson were able to break down Cherryvilleâ€™s man-to-man defense with dribble penetration, setting up high percentage shots.
In addition, the Knights were able to use their quickness to beat the Ironmen down the floor for transition baskets off the break.
As a result, North Lincoln hit 8 of its 12 field goal attempts in the first quarter to build an 18-7 lead.
And even though the Knights cooled off somewhat, they finished the game shooting 55 percent (29-for-47) from the field.
Kenny Bethea had a hot hand throughout the contest for North Lincoln, hitting a game-high 21 points while missing only one shot from the field. Alex Loftin provided firepower from the outside with 16 points.
On defense, North Lincoln held Thomas, who averages nearly 19 points per game, to a season-low 10 points. Antonio Griggs, Cherryvillleâ€™s No. 2 threat, made only four of 21 shots for 11 points.
In the second half, North Lincoln answered every Cherryville run with big plays on both ends of the court. The most important play down the stretch came with just under five minutes left when Trishtan Johnson beat his defender for a layup, drew a foul and converted a three-point play to give North Lincoln a 57-46 lead.
The Knights maintained a safe lead the rest of the way and sealed the win at the line, hitting 9-for-9 in the fourth quarter.
North Lincoln is already in the playoffs as the Southern Foothills No. 3 seed, but the Knights can improve their playoff seeding with a win against Maiden. If that happens, North Lincoln will enter the playoffs Monday as the No. 2 seed and would drop Cherryville (17-8) to the third seed.by Mike Powell