By RYAN HERMAN
HICKORY –– Before Christmas East Lincoln was known as a team that could only excel in the open court.
Chazz Surratt recorded his seventh double-double of the season with 22 points and 13 rebounds, and East Lincoln used its superior rebounding and defense to offset another poor night offensively for the second straight night to upset top-seeded Newton-Conover 57-52 in the championship game of the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference tournament at Catawba Valley Community College on Friday.
The win gave the Mustangs (23-3) the league’s No. 2 seed for the state playoffs, which open today, and also earned them a first round game in the friendly confines of their own gym.
When conference play began post New Year’s Day, East Lincoln made its living getting easy layups in transition en route to a 12-0 start. But as the season progressed, the Mustangs’ opponents did a good job of taking away those easy buckets –– namely Newton-Conover and West Caldwell –– and forced them to adjust.
Although it blew nearly all of a 16-point second-half lead Friday, East Lincoln outrebounded Newton-Conover 32-20 –– 12-9 on the offensive glass –– and held a solid 3-point shooting team to 5 of 19 from behind the arc after the Red Devils hit their first two.
Against West Caldwell in the semifinals a day earlier the Mustangs won the rebounding battle 40-25 –– 16 from Surratt –– and held another good shooting team to 33 percent (15 for 47).
With the regular season now complete, longtime East Lincoln coach Neil Hodges feels his team is playing at its highest level of the season, and doing so without a lot of fast breaks.
“If you’ve got to hang your hat on something then that’s two good places to hang it –– defense and rebounding,” he said. “If you can get that going then you’re going to be squared away.”
“I think we’re playing as good as we can play, getting into the playoffs,” Hodges added. “There’s a couple things we need to work on, so we’re going to get in there and get that going and we’ll be good.”
One of those things may be closing out games.
After falling behind 8-2 early, East Lincoln went on a 15-4 run to take command. But a few mental mistakes in the fourth quarter saw its 16-point lead trimmed to two with less than a minute to play.
Surratt’s three-quarter-court pass to Hayden Duggins in traditional East Lincoln style turned into an easy layup and gave the Mustangs a seemingly comfortable 40-24 lead at the two-minute mark of the third quarter. Only it wasn’t.
The Red Devils closed with a 28-14 stretch on the shoulders of Josh Ramseur, who had nine of his 13 points in the final eight minutes.
Ramseur hit a pair of 3s during the frenetic run, the last with 45 seconds left that made it 54-52. But East Lincoln was able to hit its free throws after missing 5 of 7 a few minutes earlier and kept the Red Devils (21-5) from scoring again.
“We had us a nice lead (then) played very poorly,” Hodges said. “We haven’t been in that situation a whole lot this year … but we’re happy to come away with the win. It’s always nice (to win) a championship.”
The Mustangs packed it in tight inside, forcing Newton-Conover to settle for the outside shot. After draining their first two 3s in the 8-2 start, the Red Devils missed their next 10 until Ramseur hit one midway through the final quarter.
In all, Newton-Conover shot 39 percent (18 of 46).
“We ended on top because we wanted it more. When it comes down to a game like this, it’s all who wants it,” said East Lincoln senior center Charlie Hills, who had 13 points –– seven in the fourth quarter.
“We needed to win this, and we came out and we did what we had to do.”
The Mustangs had 14 second-chance points –– all in the first half. Before halftime, East Lincoln had 10 offensive rebounds to Newton-Conover’s nine rebounds in all.
Jalen Connor finished with 20 points and 11 boards for the Red Devils, but they weren’t able to turn their nine offensive rebounds into very many points –– eight in all.
Using the inside-out approach, the Mustangs were able to pound the ball inside. They averaged 14 3-point attempts per game heading in, according to team stats posted on Maxpreps.com, but took only six against Newton-Conover, and all came in the first half.
Turns out they didn’t need the long-range shot, because those high-percentage inside looks were enough.
East Lincoln drew a 10-seed when the state playoffs were seeded on Saturday, and will host No. 23 R-S Central (13-9) at 7 tonight.
The Mustangs, with a new look and a new sense of purpose, are ready for a postseason run.
“Coming back again and winning it, it’s the best feeling ever,” said Hills, referring to the Mustangs’ 47-40 loss to Lake Norman Charter in last year’s Southern Piedmont 1A/2A title game. “Now, it’s time for the state playoffs.”