DENVER – With a select audience of parents, students, and fans looking on, Lincoln Charter cut down the nets Tuesday night in Machado Gymnasium.
The ceremony was a sweet moment in a season that has been like no other in the school’s basketball history, a journey marked by emotional highs and lows and another deep playoff run.
The Eagles (16-2) held off Mount Airy 64-54 in a grinding, back-and-forth game for the Western 1A Regional championship.
But their work is not done yet. The program goes for its second state title Saturday when Lincoln Charter plays Wilson Prep (7-2) at 3:30 p.m. at Wheatmore High School in Trinity.
The team dealt with tragedy before the 2020-21 season even got underway. Jamie Seitz, a beloved physical education teacher and assistant coach in boys basketball, died from complications of COVID-19 in late December at the age of 51.
“It’s just everything we have been through,” Lincoln Charter coach Brad Gabriel said. “With the pandemic, losing Coach (Seitz), and having one of players’ house burn down, it’s been a terrible season.”
But in other respects, it has been a satisfying season in that the Eagles reached their potential.
“We felt like we had the pieces to make a run,” Gabriel said. “This team is a little different than in the past. We are more of a unit. We rely on each other. We have guys that play hard and play the right way.”
A team without a true post player, the Eagles are a unit of interchangeable parts that are better as a whole than individually.
True, guard Sam Cogan is the kind of player who can get a tough basket when it is needed. But nearly every player has a role.
For example, the tempo and style of Tuesday’s game took away some of the things that burly center Carter Seitz does well. But reserve Avery Borden stepped into the breech and contributed seven points, tough defense, and a presence on the boards.
“Avery (Borden) played beautiful basketball tonight,” Gabriel said.
In their three previous playoff games, Lincoln Charter won by an average margin of 36 points. Likewise, Mount Airy had rolled to three easy wins to make the regional final.
However, Tuesday’s game was anything but a mismatch. The teams took turns swapping the lead several times in the tense fourth quarter before the momentum swung in Lincoln Charter’s favor.
After falling behind 18-11, the Granite Bears (14-4) shot 9-for-12 in the second quarter to go up 31-27 at the half.
The Eagles got eight points from Cogan in an 18-12 third quarter run to regain the lead at 45-43.
The remainder of the game was a chess match in which the Lincoln Charter coaching staff made two winning moves.
Midway through the period, with Lincoln Charter up 52-51, Gabriel ordered his team to spread the floor. It looked a bit like North Carolina’s famous Four Corners with sophomore point guard Elijah Burnett running the offense.
The spread frustrated Mount Airy to the point that they resorted to fouling, and the move opened up driving lanes for Burnett.
“That was our game plan, and we wanted to do it earlier,” Gabriel said. “With the way Elijah (Burnett) dribbles and bounces and makes decisions, we thought it would be to our advantage and allow us to utilize the clock.”
The Eagles made enough free throws out of the spread (7-of-12) to extend the lead to 59-51 near the two-minute mark.
On the other end of the floor, Lincoln Charter switched from man-to-man to zone.
“One of my assistant coaches suggested we drop back in a zone, and it gave them something different to look at,” Gabriel said.
The Granite Bears missed a number of 3-point shots against the zone, and the Eagles were able to salt the game away at the line.
Cogan led all scorers with 22 points, followed by Burnett with 11 and junior guard Marcus Farley with 10.
Caden Fitzgibbons led Mount Airy with 17 points, but 13 of those came in the first half. (Published March 5, 2021)