By RYAN HERMAN
HICKORY –– As ugly as its offense was, East Lincoln’s defense and rebounding were things of beauty.
The Mustangs overcame a poor shooting night by clearing the boards and getting stops when they needed, and they knocked off the only team they had yet to beat this season, West Caldwell, with a 47-39 win in the semifinals of the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference tournament at Catawba Valley Community College on Thursday.
Third-seeded East Lincoln (22-3) became the first lower seed to win in both the boys and girls tournaments, and will face top-seeded and regular season champion Newton-Conover for the tournament title at 8 o’clock here tonight.
Freshman Sage Surratt scored a game-high 14 points and sophomore Chazz Surratt added 12. For the first time this season the older Surratt didn’t convert a field goal and went 0 for 10 from the field, and as a team East Lincoln set a season-low for points scored and shot 25 percent (11 for 44), also a season low.
It may have been an offensive night offensively for the Mustangs. But they won the rebounding battle 40-25 –– 16 from Chazz Surratt and nine from Sage Surratt –– and held a good shooting team like the Warriors to 33 percent (15 for 47) by taking away the easy inside shot.
“This was a nice victory for us, especially after they had beaten us twice,” East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges said. “It was probably an ugly game, but you’ve got to win ugly ones, too. You can’t always take the princesses to the prom.”
Fast-break points were few and far between for an East Lincoln team that excels in transition. The Mustangs had just four fast-break points, and struggled against an equally-impressive Warriors defense.
The difference in the score came at the free throw line, where East Lincoln hit 24 of 34 –– 11 of 14 in the fourth quarter, 6 of 8 by Chazz Surratt –– while West Caldwell went a dismal 6 for 19.
“Both teams pretty much cut the other one off for the easy shots. When you get to that, Chazz made a lot of foul shots down the stretch,” Hodges said.
As bad a night as the Mustangs had on offense, things began smoothly for them as they built an early 6-0 lead and hit their first two shot attempts. But the decent start was followed by missing their next 10 as West Caldwell took the lead with a 7-0 run, and East Lincoln didn’t get its next one until Charlie Hills’ lay-in with roughly 90 seconds left in the first quarter.
From then on it was a battle of attrition for both teams. At the end of the third quarter both Chazz Surratt –– the county’s leading scorer –– and West Caldwell scoring leader Mekhi Dula had a combined one made field goal. Dula finished with seven points on 3 of 10 shooting.
The teams played a similar game at West Caldwell on Feb. 7. East Lincoln scored a then season-low 49 points, and shot a then season-low 30 percent from the field, but its defense and rebounding didn’t have quite the impact in the 61-49 loss.
On Thursday, those things did.
“We felt that was the key for us, we really did. … We did a good job; we made them take the long shot, which we had to do. It was not pretty, but, like I said, we were happy to get it,” Hodges said.
“More than basketball skill, this game tonight was a test of your willpower. … The defense and the rebounding was what it was testing, and we passed that test.”