By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– In the first 23 years of the annual East Lincoln Winter Jam its boys basketball team had won just one tournament championship, and for good reason –– more often than not the Mustangs weren’t the best team.
This year they were.
Chazz Surratt led four in double figures with 26 points, and the Mustangs exploded on Monday with a game-deciding run early to knock off Mooresville 90-66 and win their own tournament for the second time in its 24-year history.
Mason Leach scored a career-high 17 points and had seven assists, Charlie Hills had 14 points and six rebounds and Sage Surratt had 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists to lead East Lincoln (9-0) to its first championship since defeating Charlotte Ardrey Kell 59-49 in 2008.
The Mustangs are now 2-4 all-time in six title game appearances, meaning they’ve played in 25 percent of the championships –– a relatively low number considering host schools like to win their own tournaments.
“We haven’t won it much because of the caliber of the teams that are here. … Some of the years going into it we felt like we weren’t going to be competitive. This year we felt like we could be,” longtime East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges said. “The kids played very hard, and that was the big thing.”
And they played lights out early against the Blue Devils (5-6).
The teams exchanged leads once then shared it at 5-all before the Mustangs reeled off 11 unanswered points in lightning-quick fashion.
The run stretched to 16-2, then ended the first quarter at 20-4 as East Lincoln hit its final nine shots of the period.
A layup by Leach gave it 10 baskets in 10 shots and a 27-9 lead to start the second quarter. The streak of shots ended when Chazz Surratt, who added 10 rebounds, four assists and a steal en route to tournament MVP honors, missed a tough off-balance shot after several behind-the-back dribbles.
The half ended with the Mustangs leading 43-22, and their lead dipped below 20 points just twice in the second half.
“We jumped on them really early (and) jumped them good. I think that sort of set the tone for the game,” Hodges said. “We got a lot of easy shots, and that’s always good.”
East Lincoln was impressively efficient with the ball early. It hit 11 of its first 15 shots, and had an assist on seven of those baskets.
Even with a 5-for-15 second quarter from the floor –– by far their worst shooting period of the game –– the Mustangs finished with an astounding 33 made field goals in 54 attempts (61 percent).
“It’s experience and we’ve got a whole lot of talent. We’re starting to jell, we play good defense and we’ve got a lot of scorers so that helps a lot,” Surratt said.
The run to the title came a year after the team finished a disappointing fifth in 2012. But this isn’t last year.
“There’s a big difference in this year from last year,” Surratt said. “It’s great for our school.”
The last time East Lincoln won its own tournament it also made the regionals, and won its only regional playoff game before falling to eventual state champion Shelby.
The Mustangs are off to their best start in the last decade and feel they haven’t yet hit their stride, even if they are beating teams by an average of 22.7 points per game.
“We can be a lot better. We’re not settling for just being as good as we are right now,” said Surratt, who leads the county in scoring at 21.7 points per game. “I think we’ve got a lot of work to do. We can work on our defense a little bit. But at the end of the season we should be as good as we need to be –– and should be.”