DENVER –– A week ago no basketball team from Lincoln Charter had ever made the state playoffs, much less won a game.
Half of that changed when both the boys and girls teams qualified, and the other half changed with both won their first round games on Monday.
Lincoln Charter’s boys picked up a win on the road by defeating Highlands School, 51-47, and its girls routed Highland Tech, 56-24, at home to advance to today’s second round.
The 13th-seeded boys will travel to No. 5 Alleghany for a 7 p.m. game, which the No. 2 girls will host No. 7 Bessemer City at 6 p.m.
Lincoln Charter’s boys had the most difficult time with their first round opponent, and had it not been for a late-season surge they may have never had the chance to experience NCHSAA playoff basketball.
The Eagles (11-16) have won four of their last five games, including ending the regular season on mini two-game win streak to help push them into the playoffs. The recent success comes on the heels of a stretch where they lost five in a row and eight of nine, but things weren’t always as they seemed.
Lincoln Charter played the top three teams in the Southern Piedmont 1A Conference –– Cherryville, Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy and Bessemer City –– twice each in a span of eight games.
“A lot of that was our scheduling,” Eagles coach Brad Gabriel said. “We were trying to come together, but when you play those good teams, it’s a struggle.”
Now, Lincoln Charter is on the right track heading into Sparta tonight.
“We never stopped playing. We play hard, we believe in each other, I believe in the kids, and they believe in me. It’s just kind of come together, and here we are.”
Gabriel said his team has cut down on its turnovers and is playing better defense, but on Monday he saw signs of it reverting back to its old ways.
Senior Christian Hilty scored 18 points, 17 in the first half, and Amir Davis added 13 but the Eagles weren’t able to hold onto a 16-point first-half lead.
The good thing is, they have learned how to win recently, which helped on Monday night.
“I think we can play better, I really do. I like our team and I like its makeup –– we’re playing smart and executing –– but … we didn’t play well at all,” Gabriel said.
“Two months ago we would have lost that game.”
Now that the Eagles have learned how to win, they must do so against a formidable opponent tonight in the Trojans (20-6).
Gabriel said they have solid interior play, and on their roster is the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Athletic Conference player of the year in Fabian Santos, a 6-foot-4 junior.
But, Gabriel compared Alleghany to the top three teams from his own conference, and has used that as motivation for his players.
“They’re pretty solid all-around, from what I hear, top to bottom. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t see anything different (than what we’re used to) and have to adjust throughout the game. We’re just going to go up there and see what happens.”
Now that the school has its first state playoffs victory in boys basketball under its belt, Gabriel is hoping to use the win as a stepping stone to building a successful program there.
Its future looks bright, as its middle school team went 16-2 this season, Gabriel said, and won its conference tournament.
Winning also helps.
“We’ve been able to get some confidence. Winning is contagious, and, unfortunately, just like losing is. You win a couple games, and it gives you better confidence. The more you win, the better you play,” Gabriel said.
“It’s a good monkey off the back for the school. As a coach and as a program, you want to continue to build to, hopefully, this is something that’s expected every year. For me, personally, as a coach, it’s not about me. It’s about teaching these kids the correct way to play basketball, to give back to the community and to be proud of something.”
LINCOLN CHARTER 56
HIGHLAND TECH 24
Lincoln Charter’s girls also picked up their first playoff victory, and their reward is having to play league foe Bessemer City for a fourth time this season.
Caitlyn Miller scored 17 points Monday and Victoria Cobb added 12 in the easy win, but nothing came easy the last time the Eagles (22-2) and Yellow Jackets (18-8) met.
Bessemer City walked away with a 45-41 win last week in the championship of the SP1A tournament, and handed the Eagles their first loss to a league opponent this season.
Lincoln Charter won the two regular season meetings 48-39 and 59-36.