Written By Zachary Braziller
There will be other dynasties and other superstars, but no team will ever be able to top what the Lincoln Railsplitters of Lance Stephenson and Darwin (Buddha) Ellis accomplished the last four years.
For now, after winning their fourth consecutive PSAL Class AA city championship, besting John F. Kennedy 78-56 at Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon, they stand alone.
It is why the Railsplitters celebration lasted so long, well after the trophies and banners were handed out. At the final horn, the entire team erupted, hopping up and down like pogo sticks at half court. Soon, they formed a close circle, taking turns dancing to the booming sounds of the MSG PA system. Stephenson and Ellis, the childhood friends and lifelong teammates, met in a lengthy hug.
“We did it; we made history,” they screamed, almost in unison.
“That was just hard work, so much hard work,” said Stephenson, who took home his fourth MVP award. “I don’t think nobody will be able to do that again. It takes work. You got to be focused. You got to be dedicated to basketball.”
Said Ellis: “We talked about this all four years.”
Stephenson, the 6-foot-5 senior, led all scorers with 24 points and added 10 rebounds. James Padgett followed with 17 points and 14 rebounds, Ellis had 15 and Anthony Allen followed with 10 points and eight rebounds. Naquan Pierce paced Kennedy (26-3) with 17 points, Jeffrey Arzu added 12 and six assists and Shea Spence 11 points and nine rebounds.
“The fourth is the best of them all,” said Padgett, who won the last two after transferring in from Xaverian. “It solidifies history.”
Stephenson came out firing, scoring 14 of Lincoln’s first 27 points as they built a 13-point lead. The entire arsenal – long jump shots, dunks, pull-up jumpers and powerful drives into the lane – were on display.
“I was trying to end the game right away,” he said.
Kennedy, though, had other plans. The Knights, who had won 19 consecutive games entering the high noon showdown, ripped off 12 of the next 15 points, led by the play of Arzu and Pierce, the undersized guards. The two scored nine of JFK’s 12 points in the run, including a reverse layup by Pierce set up by Arzu’s flashy behind-the-back pass. The junior guard also drew Stephenson’s third foul with 3:49 remaining in the first half.
“I was very nervous, but I had faith in my team,” Stephenson said.
As has so often been the case over the years, Lincoln (22-10) didn’t just hold the fort with its star riding pine, the Railsplitters extended the lead.
They ended the half on an 8-0 run – created by two Kennedy turnovers and four Lincoln layups, one apiece from Padgett, Stokes, Ellis and Allen.
“We have 10 guys that play hard basketball,” Morton said. “That’s the difference.”
Kennedy didn’t get closer than seven points the entire second half. Stephenson just scored eight points after halftime, but Ellis, after another cold start, added a pair of 3-pointers. Padgett and Allen contributed several important hoops. Padgett, along with Stephenson, crushed the Knights on the boards after halftime, two reasons the Railsplitters held a 45-38 edge off the glass and grabbed 23 offensive rebounds.
“I got the best two big men in the city,” Morton said. “I’m just happy Padgett wanted to come over and play for us.”
Morton played down what it meant to him personally to coach the first team to win four consecutive city titles. But he will never forget this group, particularly the two four-year seniors.
“Lance and Buddha have a special place in my heart,” Morton said. “In four years, we went through everything. It’s hard to lose a Lance and a Buddha at the same time. You don’t get two guys like that.”
Of course, Morton said, he won’t get nostalgic until he retires years later. Ever confident, he wanted to go on further, to win another crown next year, with a different crop of players.
This wasn’t the dream season many had predicted. Lincoln faced several highly ranked foes, such as St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) and Westchester (Calif.).
They lost nine none-league games. Looking back, Morton said that only made his team stronger, built up its resolve when it came to facing the city’s best. There were also doubters for the first time.
“They can’t say nothing to us now,” said Ellis, the St. Francis College-bound guard. “We did it.”