Special to LTN
DENVER — There’s a reason that the phrase “the fourth time is the charm” never stuck.
On Monday night in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs, East Lincoln proved to be just as big, just as athletic, just as talented and just as difficult to beat as it was in its three previous wins against North Lincoln this season.
In a matchup that followed a similar path to their earlier meetings, the Mustangs pulled ahead, fought off second-half rallies from the Knights, and advanced to the second round with a 67-56 victory. East Lincoln, the No. 4 seed in the West, will host No. 5 seed Burnsville Mountain Heritage (19-9) on Wednesday.
“It’s tough when you play a rival, and it’s especially tough when the rival is having a good season,” said North Lincoln coach Eric King, whose team lost to the Mustangs for the third time since Feb. 15. “We did not finish where we wanted to finish. It’s frustrating to lose to a team four times and then have that be East as well. The kids played hard. We’re obviously outsized and they’re more athletic. The last three games we’ve been in the fourth quarter and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. I wish it could have gone the other way, especially for the seniors.”
Like they had in previous meetings, the Mustangs built a first-half lead. Domonique Smith scored all nine of his points in the half as the Mustangs (20-7) took a 29-24 lead at halftime.
That’s when North Lincoln senior guard Hunter Caldwell went to work. His 3-pointer and driving layup in the opening two minutes of the second half cut the East Lincoln lead to two points and his 3-pointer from deep on the wing with 5:55 left in the third quarter gave the Knights (10-17) their first lead, 34-33, since they led 4-2 in the game’s opening minutes.
But like they have all season against the Knights, the Mustangs answered in a big way. East Lincoln closed the quarter on a 16-4 run to pull ahead, 49-38.
North Lincoln senior Christian Ramos buried two pull-up 3-pointers around a Chase Stehling layup to pull North Lincoln to within 49-46 with 6:12 remaining in the game.
But after a timeout, East Lincoln freshman Chazz Surratt, who scored 24 of his career-high 30 points in the second half, extinguished all hopes of a North Lincoln comeback. He made a 15-footer and seconds later calmly sank a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 54-46. After Landon Yarbrough halted the run with a basket in the paint, Surratt sank a free throw and then stole a North Lincoln pass and dished to Mason Leach for two of his career-high 12 points off the bench.
North Lincoln didn’t get closer than six points the rest of the way.
“The coaches called a play (out of the timeout) to set me up to score and I just had to be aggressive,” Surratt said. “My competitiveness took over and that’s when I turned it on. We couldn’t lose that game. I had to turn it on.”
Surratt made 13 of 16 free throws, including 8 of 10 in the final quarter, and made 8 of 13 shots. Christian Tyson-Bryant added nine points, along with Smith’s nine and Leach’s 12.
“Offensively we have three or four guys averaging double figures,” East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges said. “We have a pretty balanced attack. What happened tonight is we were able to make some stops on defense and kick the ball up and get something down at the other end. Realistically, we’re going to have to play better. We played OK, but not as good as we’re capable of playing.”
Ramos finishes his North Lincoln career as the school’s career and season leader in assists and Caldwell is the school’s all-time leader in steals.
Surratt said it was good to get the win and move to the next round.
“We just had to come out and create our own energy and play hard like we always do,” said Surratt, who averaged 20.2 points in the Mustangs’ four wins against North Lincoln. “We knew they weren’t going to lay down, they’re a tough team.”