By Zachary Braziller
Darwin (Buddha) Ellis was breaking into that sideways hop of his after knocking down 3-pointers. Lance Stephenson was emphatically grabbing one-handed rebounds and throwing down electrifying dunks that shook the basket to its core.
The entire Lincoln team followed the two seniors, limiting Boys & Girls to two Devante Cutler free throws in the final 6:34 of a 64-54 win. After consecutive victories over division rivals Thomas Jefferson and Boys & Girls in the span of 72 hours,
Lincoln seems to have regained that swagger that was lost during a trying non-league schedule. “We shut everybody up,” Stephenson said after the victory in Coney Island clinched the Brooklyn AA regular-season crown and assured the Railsplitters (14-8, 12-1 Brooklyn AA) of the top seed in the upcoming Brooklyn borough playoffs.
“We ain’t no losing team; we’re a good team. … I feel very confident for the city championship.” Stephenson, the top-rated prospect, scored a game-high 29 points and added 16 rebounds and five assists. Ellis, who has struggled so mightily this season battling a broke left pinkie finger, finished with 16 points, including four
consecutive 3-pointers in the second quarter.
Center James Padgett added six and 10 rebounds. “I got my mojo back,” Ellis said, later adding: “It feels just like last year (for me). I’m trying to go out with a bang. This is my senior year. There’s no turning back.”
Sophomore Mike Taylor led Boys with 17 points, Richard Brown III added 13 points and Devante Cutler had 12 and nine assists. Lincoln led virtually the entire way, building a 12-4 advantage after the opening quarter as it held Boys to just two points, a Leroy Isler field goal, over the first 7:45.
After the lead was cut to 15-10, Ellis got into the act, hitting one long-range bomb after another, almost singlehandedly building the lead up to 14, 27-13, with 4:52 remaining in the second quarter.
“Buddha’s scoring opened it up for everybody,” Stephenson said. “We got easy baskets because of Buddha.” The Kangaroos (17-7, 11-3), though, wouldn’t die, getting to within eight, 34-26, at halftime.
The High kept coming, unfazed by the relentless Stephenson and the hostile crowd. Anton Dickerson capped a stunning 20-7 run that included consecutive treys by Taylor 1:24 into the final quarter.
The Railsplitters, however, answered by tightening up on the defensive end, forcing Boys into seven consecutive empty trips – four missed shots, two of them open layups, and three turnovers. “We locked them up,” Stephenson said. “We said if we play ‘D,’ we’ll win this one easy.”
Lincoln found its rhythm offensively, too, by forcing the ball inside to Stephenson and Padgett. Morton instructed his players to run a weave well beyond the 3-point line. It spread the court, forcing one-on-one matchups.
Padgett got the go-ahead hoop while Stephenson poured in seven, including 5-of-6 from the line. “This puts us in a better place mentally,” Ellis said. “It gives us confidence.” Morton wasn’t about to take bows, not after just two consistent efforts. He wants to see more inspired play. But he also added it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
During late December and mid-January, the Railsplitters faced several nationally ranked opponents, traveling to Fort Myers, Fla., for the City of Palms Classic, to Trenton, N.J., and Newark, N.J.
They rarely got to practice in their own gym, or even play there, for that matter. The 11-day layoff, following a 36-point loss to St. Benedict’s Prep, the No. 2-ranked team in the nation by USA.
Today, allowed the coach to get back to basics. He worked on all facets of the game – pressure defense, sharing the ball offensively, running sprint after sprint to get in better condition. “Those losses,” he said, “made guys eager to come to practice.”
Stephenson echoed his coach’s sentiments, crediting the hard work in practice for the recent upswing. Of course, it also took time for this group to jell – just Padgett, Stephenson and Ellis saw minutes a season ago. Point guard Shaquille Stokes has found a rhythm; the same goes for reserves Davon Walls, Raymond O’Loughlin and Lazaro Martinez.
“The beginning of the year we weren’t a team yet,” Stephenson said. “Now we’re playing together.”