East Lincoln beat East Gaston 68-56 in the semifinals of the First Charter Holiday Classic Thursday night.
Trishtan Johnson, who was averaging 21.5 points entering last nightâ€™s game, poured in 23 points to lead the host Mustangs past the Warriors and advance to tonightâ€™s championship versus Vance, who defeated Hopewell 44-29.
â€œOur team is starting to come together a lot more. Everybody is starting to know each other and weâ€™re playing together better because of that,â€ Johnson said after the game.
The victory extends the Mustangsâ€™ win streak to nine after dropping the first two games of the season. The most instrumental reason behind the impressive streak has been the play of their experienced senior backcourt made up of Johnson and Jamelle Lowery.
Lowery, a near 6-foot guard, added 14 points to complement Johnsonâ€™s game-high.
â€œWeâ€™ve been playing good basketball and some way somehow we always find a way to win,â€ he said.
After thinking for a moment, he added, â€œI guess we just want it more than the other team.â€
The Mustangs also got a glimpse of the future as freshman Keith Rendleman scored 13 in the paint, while 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Alex Newsome added 12.
Demeitric Sanders led the Warriors with 11.
It may come as a surprise to some, but anybody who saw how hard the duo worked in the offseason expected this type of stellar play.
During the summer, Johnson and Lowery played one-on-one, and when school started back they would hit the gym at 7 a.m. to get some shooting in before the bell rang.
While that was, needless to say, important, Johnson also credits head coach Neil Hodges and assistant coach Chip Ashley for his improvement.
â€œHe (Coach Hodges) tells me everything. He tells me where my feet should be and helps me with my free throws. He stays on me. Every time I mess up, theyâ€™ll (the coaches) pick me up and show me what I did wrong,â€ he said.
Tonightâ€™s championship appearance will be the first time in four years the Mustangs have reached the championship and like good players do Lowery has already scouted his competition.
â€œVance is athletic and very quick. They can go by anybody, but weâ€™re going to have to play good defense and make them beat us with their shooting,â€ he said.
The Mustangs slipped by Forestview 51-48 in first-round action.
Ray Hill scored a game-high 21 for the Jaguars, but it was not enough as Johnson led a balanced scoring effort for East Lincoln with 19 points.
Newsome, who continues to emerge in the middle, turned in one of the best games of his young career with 16 points. Lowery added 12 to help East advance to the semifinal game.
by John Mark Brooks