Special to LTN
DENVER â€” With the way East Lincoln has played the past month, it was only fitting that the Mustangs saved their best for last on Monday night in the first round of the 2A playoffs.
After Piedmont battled back from yet another deficit in the waning moments, East Lincoln sank six consecutive free throws to hold on for a 66-60 victory.
With the win, the Mustangs play tonight at Lexington (15-10), which defeated Thomasville, 84-79, on Monday. Lexington is the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region.
â€œFirst round of state, youâ€™re always happy to get the victory,â€ East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges said. â€œThey (Piedmont) shot the ball very well. We came up with a couple of defensive stops when we needed them and I think that was the difference in the game.â€
The win is the Mustangsâ€™ ninth in their past 11 after starting the season 4-12.
â€œWeâ€™re playing our best basketball of the year,â€ Hodges said. â€œWeâ€™re just hoping to continue to improve and who knows. Playoff basketballâ€”you never know. You just go out and throw it up and you play and anything can happen.â€
East Lincoln led at the half, 33-23, but Piedmont hit 8 of 13 shots in the third quarter and Austin Hardingâ€™s 3-pointer with 1:18 left knotted the score at 39-39.
But the Mustangs (13-14) were up to the challenge. Bubba McDowell hit two 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter and scored eight points as East Lincoln surged to a 51-44 lead with 4:47 left.
The Panthers didnâ€™t go away. Alan King (16 points) hit three 3-pointers in less than two minutes and Brady Meggs (16 points) completed a 3-point play with 1:23 left to pull the Panthers even at 60-60.
â€œWhen youâ€™re a three point shooting team, a 10-point lead is not much,â€ Hodges said of the Panthers, who hit 4 of 6 three-point shots in the fourth quarter.
Thatâ€™s when the Mustangs took control.
Senior Antwaine McLean hit two free throws after drawing a foul on a drive to the basket, giving East Lincoln a 62-60 lead. Then came the first of the two defensive stops Hodges noted. King misfired on a long 3-point attempt.
Tyler Brock extended East Lincolnâ€™s lead to 64-60 with two more free throws. Then, Piedmontâ€™s Cody Boling hurried another 3-pointer that was off the mark and, fittingly, McDowell secured the win with two more free throws.
East Lincoln connected on 9 of 13 free throws in the final quarter and 18 of 23 for the game.
â€œI had to step up for the team,â€ said McDowell, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter. â€œThey were coming down and knocking down 3â€™s. I was wide open and my feet were set. I just put it in. They kept on coming and we had to keep on coming.â€
McLean had another stellar game for the Mustangs, scoring a game-high 22 points, while Brock added 14 points, including three 3-pointers. Addison Parrish chipped in with nine points.
â€œI thought it was a good team effort,â€ Hodges said. â€œI thought the keys going in were to rebound and cover up the shooters. We did a pretty good job of that except in the third quarter. We had a little mental lapse. We have to learn to put together four quarters and hopefully sometime this season weâ€™ll do that.â€