TRINITY—Lincoln Charter was on a mission to win a state championship in memory of assistant coach Jamie Seitz, who died from complications of COVID-19 before the season even began.
And after three quarters of play Saturday at Wheatmore High School, the Eagles led Wilson Prep, a second-year program, 45-39 in the NCHSAA state 1A championship game.
But how do you hold up against a team that brings in wave after wave of long, talented athletes off a bench that runs 15 players deep?
Fatigue, foul trouble, frustration, and the sheer size of the Tigers combined to wear down Lincoln Charter over the final eight-minute stretch.
Eric Wynn, a 6-foot-9 center, came off the bench to score 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter in Wilson Prep’s 65-58 victory.
Nasiar Blackston, a 6-4 wing, gave the Tigers their first lead since early in the game with a free throw to break a 47-47 tie at the 4:52 mark of the fourth. After that, Wilson Prep went on to build a margin that reached 12 points in the closing minutes.
The Eagles (16-3) made only four field goals in a fourth quarter that saw Wilson Prep close with a blazing 26-13 run.
A symptom of Lincoln Charter’s fatigue may have been a 9-for-19 showing at the free throw line in the second half, and only 6-for-11 in the fourth quarter when the Eagles needed points.
Southern Piedmont 1A player of the year Sam Cogan, normally a marksman at the line, missed four in a row during a stretch of the second half.
“We didn’t hit free throws, and we got tired,” Lincoln Charter coach Brad Gabriel said in the postgame press conference. “It was so very physical in the second half, and I felt like a lot of calls didn’t go our way.
“You can blame it on this or that, but it felt like a college game out there, and the last time I checked it was high school.”
Gabriel also pointed to mistakes. The Eagles turned it over 21 times in a game that never established a rhythm due to frequent fouling and miscues by both teams. For the season, Lincoln Charter averaged eight turnovers per contest.
“That is uncharacteristic of us,” Gabriel said of his team’s ball-handling woes. “So turnovers, and their size, their length, and their quickness played a part down the stretch and finally caught up with us.”
The inside presence of Wynn, along with 6-5 Devyn Bullock, named the game’s most valuable player, allowed Wilson Prep to enjoy a 41-29 advantage on the boards. The Tiger blocked four shots outright and altered many others.
Cogan and sophomore guard Elijah Burnette shared scoring honors for Lincoln Charter with 15 points each. Cogan, whose specialty is getting into the lane off dribble-and-drive moves, finished 5-for-16 from the floor and 5-for-10 from the line.
Although the technical foul Gabriel picked up midway through the fourth was not a turning point, it was a sign that the game was trending Wilson Prep’s way.
“I let the refs get in my head,” Gabriel said. “I was fighting with the referees, and they took me out of the game. I didn’t coach a good game, and our kids fed off that. I take the blame for that.”
In the first half, both teams struggled to make shots (9-for-23 for Lincoln Charter and 9-for-24 for Wilson Prep). However, Troy Fulton gave the Eagles a lift by making four 3-pointers, three of them in the first quarter. Lincoln Charter took a 34-26 lead into the break.
Unfortunately for Lincoln Charter, Fulton went scoreless in the second half and got off only three shots.
Lincoln Charter was making its second appearance in the state championship game after taking the 2017 crown over Kestarel Heights 97-75.
Wilson Prep (7-2) lost its first two games of the season and endured lengthy periods of idleness due to the coronavirus, so much so that the Tigers managed to complete just four games during the regular season.
(Published March 8, 2021)