If somebody wouldâ€™ve said neither Trishtan Johnson or Jamelle Lowery would score 15 and the Mustangs would still beat Hibriten in the second round of the 2A State Playoffsâ€¦you wouldâ€™ve laughed.
But the only ones laughing were the Mustangs all the way to a 76-47 victory Thursday night.
East Lincoln came out hitting on all cylinders and surged out to a 23-13 lead through the first quarter.
With momentum on their side and the home crowd behind them, the Mustangs held Hibriten to just four second quarter points as they built a 37-17 lead at the half.
â€œWe thought it was important to jump out and smack them early. Our kids did a nice job. It was a great team effort. I thought our kids played very well,â€ East Lincoln head coach Neil Hodges said.
Great defense, sure. But East did allow several good looks that just didnâ€™t go down from the perimeter.
â€œWe missed some shots early and if we wouldâ€™ve made those shots, we couldâ€™ve stayed close and I think it wouldâ€™ve been a different ballgame,â€ Panthersâ€™ head coach Roger Burgess said.
The Panthers attempted to claw their way back into the game in the third quarter, mounting a 12-2 run that cut the lead to 11 at 43-32.
But the Mustangs responded with a 10-0 spurt of its own. A Spencer Sydney 3-pointer and Adrian Forney three had Hibriten dazed. Thomas Huntley completed the knockout with one of his two dunks on the night.
â€œIt was a heck of an experience. We came out pumped and ready to play,â€ Spencer, who had 10 points said, playing in his first ever playoff basketball game.
While Johnson or Lowery didnâ€™t light up the scoreboard. Both seniors, who were honored before the game, put together respectable games.
Lowery scored 13 points and dished out five assists, while Johnson failed to reach double-figures with nine but ripped down seven rebounds and had steals.
â€œEvery game takes on its own life and when weâ€™ve needed them, theyâ€™ve showed up,â€ Hodges said. â€œTonight, we didnâ€™t need them to do a whole lot of scoring. We were moving the ball well and getting easy shots,â€ he added.
Junior Payton Brady paced the Mustangs with 16 points, including going five-for-five from the foul line.
After suffering through a bout with mononucleosis and a broken nose, Thursdayâ€™s performance was particularly rewarding.
â€œI know what my role is on this team. Itâ€™s playoff time. This is my best timeâ€”last year with North Lincoln and then in football (this year), I had to step it up,â€ Brady said.
The breakout playoff game is nothing new for Brady as he and Johnson helped lead the Knights to a sectional final a season ago, an experience Brady drew upon entering Thursdayâ€™s game.
â€œI know what to expect. The crowd, the hype and the intensity weâ€™re supposed to have,â€ Brady said.
Two players, two young men who have faced their fair share of trials, in terms of health, during the season. Sydney a broken finger and Bradyâ€™s mono.
Finally healthy, Hodges was not surprised by their breakout performances.
â€œTheyâ€™re good basketball players. Theyâ€™re just now getting into good basketball shape,â€ he said. â€œWhat theyâ€™re doing now, is really stuff we expected them to do all season. Both of them are very good players and Iâ€™m glad to see them have some success,â€ he added.
To say the reserves stepped up for East Lincoln would be a severe understatement as Sydney hit 3 3-pointers, Forney went 2-for-2 from long range and Keith Rendleman contributed 10 points.
â€œTheyâ€™re a very good team. They have good size on the inside, good leapers, good shooters on the outside. Theyâ€™re capable of beating a lot of teams,â€ Burgess said.
Point guard Cam Walton scored a team-high 18 points, while teammate Jonathan Corpening chipped in eight.
East, with the first playoff victory since 1981 in tow, moves on to the sectional finals to face West Caldwell at Hickory High School Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
â€œItâ€™s survive and advance. We survived this one. We got to go to Hickory Saturday and have to play a really good club,â€ Hodges said.
A task the Mustangs know wonâ€™t be easy.
â€œAs you move along in the state tournament, teams get better and better. Our next opponent is great. Plus, we have to come back ready to play in 48 hours,â€ Hodges said, who advised his team to get plenty of rest and to stay hydrated entering Saturdayâ€™s showdown.
Six-foot-three junior Payton Brady is finally showing what he can bring to an already talented Mustangsâ€™ club after recovering from mononucleosis and a broken nose. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
by John Mark Brooks