For the first time this season, Lincolnton Middle School didn’t have an answer for its opponent, and it happened to come with a championship on the line.
Dax Hollifield scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a game that was decided on the boards, which Shelby Middle owned decisively as the Blue Devils won 63-50 in the Tri-County Conference tournament title game at Lincolnton Middle on Thursday.
Raquan Sweezy added 15 points and 15 rebounds, and the West’s top seed, Shelby, outrebounded the once-unbeaten Wildcats soundly 41-21.
The Blue Devils (11-1) led in the rebounding category from start to finish, but trailed Lincolnton Middle 44-42 with 5:20 to play.
A 7-0 Shelby spurt over the next 93 seconds changed all that.
“It’s hard to say (what happened),” said Wildcats coach Matt Hovis, whose team led 21-15 late in the second quarter and 26-23 at the break. “The guys gave it their all. It’s hard to put it into words. They fought so hard.”
Down three to start the fourth quarter, Lincolnton Middle (13-1) scored the first five points of the period and led 44-42 after eighth grader Robbie Cowie made his first and only 3-pointer in 10 tries with 5:20 left.
The Blue Devils countered with the decisive 7-0 run, all based off second-chance points due to their domination on the boards.
Of Shelby’s 41 rebounds, 12 came in the last quarter, and four generated seven points.
“We didn’t rebound the way we needed to rebound, and they got a lot of easy buckets that way. If we had rebounded, we could have taken away some of the second-chance points and been in a better position, but … you win some, you lose some,” Hovis said.
In front of a near-capacity crowd, Lincolnton Middle, which held on against Crest 55-50 in Tuesday’s semifinals to advance, used an 11-0 run in the second quarter to turn a 15-10 deficit into a 21-15 lead.
Shelby, which got at least eight points from all of its starters and none from its bench, got a 3-pointer from Malik Sarratt to end the 11-0 run with 1:35 left in the half.
The Wildcats were outscored 45-29 after that.
“If we get to the tournament that’s the only time we see this team. There are no second chances,” Hovis said. “It’s a do-or-die situation, and you hate that, and you’d like to see them again. We (have to) just try and not let one game define our season, 13 and 0 before today.”
Lincolnton Middle’s top two scorers, Cordel Littlejohn and Cowie, had a hard time against Shelby.
Cowie finished with a game-high 22 points, but very few came the easy way. Most of his buckets around the rim were contested, and the reliable long-range shooter missed his first six 3s.
Littlejohn, who brings crowds who just want to watch the eighth-grader dunk, was held to 10 points (zero slams) and scored just two in the second half –– a pair of free throws with the game already decided.
Littlejohn and Cowie figure to be varsity players as freshmen at Lincolnton High next season.
“I hope he can take this and learn from it. Better things are coming for him,” Hovis said of Littlejohn.
Hovis had the same sentiment for all of his players, who felt the dejection of defeat for the first time this season after this year’s eighth-grade class went 6-6 as seventh graders.
“This is middle school basketball (so) there’s more basketball to come,” he said. “The most important thing is they were out here having fun.”
Entering the tournament, the Wildcats were beating teams by an average of 32.3 points and averaging 58 points per game.
Tuesday’s win over Crest was their most contested game of the season in a year that surprised even Hovis, who knew what he had returning.
When asked if Shelby Middle was the best team his had faced this season, Hovis was slow to answer.
He didn’t expect to lose, just like he didn’t expect to win every game this season that his team played.
“I don’t know that they were the best team we’d faced. They were very athletic (and) they played to their strengths very well. It’s our job to stop that, and I can’t say that we did,” he said.
“I knew we were going to be good and I knew we were going to have a lot of talent, but I didn’t know what everybody else had and I never expected anything like this. It’s been awesome. The work that’s been put in at practice, and the support we’ve had in our school and in the community … this place was packed. The players brought the community here, and that speaks to the season that we’ve had.”