By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– A good poker player knows when to fold and when to hold. As the odds became more and more in East Lincoln’s favor, West Caldwell never folded.
Instead, the Warriors went all in, and the move paid off.
The Mustangs rallied back from an 18-point second half deficit, but behind its free throw shooting, packed-in defense and four scorers in double figures, West Caldwell held on for a 73-69 win on Thursday and sent East Lincoln to its second straight loss.
Mekhi Dula had 22 points and eight rebounds to lead the Warriors, who now own second place all to themselves and sit a game behind Newton-Conover in the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference race. His two-handed slam in transition on an off-the-backboard pass from Chase Bowman keyed a 15-6 run that put West Caldwell (8-5, 4-1) on top 50-32 with more than three minutes left in the third quarter.
Behind a barrage of 3s, though, the Mustangs (12-2, 3-2) came back and cut West Caldwell’s lead to three on multiple occasions. But it hit 15 of 21 free throws in the fourth quarter, and, despite East Lincoln’s sudden hot streak from long range, never came out of its 2-3 zone that had worked so well for the first three quarters.
“You play the odds I guess,” longtime Warriors coach Danny Anderson said. “When they’re taking those shots, do you abandon your game plan that’s been good to you the whole game or do you ride it out? I think if you play another quarter and they keep taking those shots, it comes back. You kind of got to just ride your game plan out.
“We just survived the odds I’d guess you’d say.”
T.J. Hendrix scored 18 points and hit 12 of 14 free throws, Ashton Smith had 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds and Ethan Bumgarner scored 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting from behind the arc as West Caldwell scored on 10 of its first 11 third quarter possessions to turn what had been a close game into a possible blowout.
But the Mustangs didn’t go quietly.
An 18-3 run that began with a 3-pointer by Dominique Smith and ended with a 3 by Sage Surratt cut the Warriors’ once 18-point lead down to three at 53-50 with 3:57 to play.
West Caldwell answered and stretched it back out, leading by as many as nine at 62-53. But again the Mustangs, behind the deep shooting of Chazz Surratt, who had a game-high 26 points, closed to within three at 68-65 with 34 seconds remaining thanks to back-to-back 3s in a span of 6 seconds.
Surratt, who struggled with his shot before finding it in the fourth quarter, where he scored 14 points, hit the back end of a double-bonus to make it a one-possession game again at 69-66 inside of 30 seconds to play.
The Warriors got a pair of free throws from Titus Tucker and a layup from Dula in the final 30 seconds to seal the win for their fourth in a row.
“In the third quarter they were very efficient offensively. If you score 10 out of 11 (possessions) that’s pretty good,” East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges said. “I feel like they’re one of the better teams in the league and maybe the best team in the league right now.”
Although West Caldwell seemed to seize control in the third quarter, the first half was up for grabs.
The first eight minutes featured four ties and four lead changes, and the Warriors used their outside shooting to take an early 21-17 lead by making four of their first nine 3-point attempts.
They outrebounded East Lincoln 17-12 in the first half –– 6-3 on the offensive end –– and got to seemingly every loose ball. They also had eight assists on their 10 made field goals in the first half, and finished with 15 assists on 22 field goals.
West Caldwell led 31-26 at the break.
“I thought they kind of outscrapped us early. I think we kind of picked it up a little bit as the game progressed, but the first six or eight minutes were not good,” Hodges said.
West Caldwell had a huge advantage at the free throw line, where it shot 73 percent (24 for 33) and missed nearly as many as East Lincoln attempted (12).
But the six the Warriors missed in the final eight minutes were enough to keep Anderson on the edge of his seat.
East Lincoln hit seven 3s in the fourth quarter alone after converting just three of its first 14 attempts.
“That’s good, but I don’t like the six that didn’t go in,” he said of the Warriors’ late-game free-throw shooting. “I never felt comfortable with 18 points with the time. Without the 3-pointer, a 20-point lead you’d think game over. The 20-point lead now has to be 30 with the 3-pointer. The 18-point lead –– that’s only six possessions.”
Following a 12-0 start the loss was the second in a row for the Mustangs, who also got 19 points from Sage Surratt. It was also the second straight game their opponent took away their ability to get out in transition –– something they fed off of in winning their first 12 games.
Against Newton-Conover on Friday the rebounding disparity was even at 34 boards apiece, but against West Caldwell on Thursday –– the game was moved back from Tuesday due to exams –– the Warriors held a 31-27 advantage, with nine of East Lincoln’s coming in the fourth quarter.
The Mustangs also didn’t get stops until it was too late.
“When you don’t rebound you can’t run. It’s that simple,” Hodges said. “You’ve got to get stops and you’ve got to get rebounds, then you can take it forward. But if you don’t get stops and you don’t get rebounds, (the) transition game goes out the window.”
With consecutive losses in its back pocket for the first time since early February of last year, East Lincoln has less than 24 hours to regroup and prepare to host Maiden (4-10, 1-4) tonight, which is in seventh ahead of West Lincoln.
“You want to play as good as you can play. We’re certainly disappointed in the fact that we’ve lost two games in a row. We’ve just got to get better,” Hodges said. “A key thing is preparation and we’ve got to prepare.”
WEST CALDWELL 56
EAST LINCOLN 16
The Warriors got 21 points from Lexus Corpening and held the Mustangs scoreless in the second quarter to win the girls game.
Hannah Moolenaar scored seven points for East Lincoln (2-12, 0-5), which trailed 7-4 after the first quarter but was outscored 18-0 in the second.
West Caldwell (5-5, 2-3) is in sixth in the SD-7 while East Lincoln and West Lincoln are tied for seventh.