Thomas Jefferson proved it can play with Lincoln, the three-time defending city champions. Beating the Railsplitters, however, is another story.
The Orange Wave hung with the Coney Island dynamo all afternoon, weathered the Railsplitters’ many runs, adjusted to foul trouble and even made Lincoln and star Lance Stephenson (20 points) sweat. But when the final whistle blew, it was just another loss to USA Today’s 16th-ranked team in the country, an 87-83 setback – Jefferson’s first defeat of the season.
“It’s a big missed opportunity,” said junior forward Joel (Air Jamaica) Wright, who led Jefferson with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Added coach Lawrence Pollard: “I’m impressed with my team. We came here and laid it all on the line. They gave it all they had.”
Lincoln led throughout, despite the absence of point guard Shaquille Stokes and shooting guard Darwin (Buddha) Ellis (broke pinkie) and James Padgett (ankle) slowed by injuries. The Orange Wave got within 64-62 with 4:46 remaining when Keith Spellman, their star guard, fouled out on a questionable reach-in.
“That killed us,” Wright said.
Spellman, who scored 19 points, blamed himself. While he questioned the call at first, he said Pollard and assistant Seldon Jefferson had warned him about cheating on defense, moving his feet instead of using his hands.
“I’m not gonna do that anymore,” he said.
Lincoln went on to build an 81-72 lead after Stephenson drained a deep 3-pointer from the right wing and punctuated the bucket by screaming and punching his right fist through the air. It capped an 8-2 spurt and left 1:19 on the clock. But Jefferson answered with seven straight points of its own and had a chance to tie with 33.4 seconds to go. Unfortunately, Wright missed a lay-up and turned the ball over on the ensuing possession.
“I just missed it,” he said, refusing to excuse the miscue.
Despite the loss, there were many positives for Jefferson. The Orange Wave frustrated Stephenson for most of the intense showdown, throwing, one, two and sometimes three defenders at the sculpted 6-foot-5 phenom. They never let the capacity crowd or the juggernaut opposite them cause them to lose composure, rallying from deficits all afternoon. And, despite defeat, Jefferson proved it is Lincoln’s equal, or can at least hang with them.
“They’re nothing special,” Wright said. “Just little mistakes cost us. When we fix those mistakes, it’s not going to be an ‘if’ or a ‘but’ if we can beat Lincoln.”
Jefferson will have to pay more attention to little-known sophomore guard Raymond Oloughlin and Anthony Allen, who combined to score 43 points, many of them down the stretch. Plus, the Orange Wave did a poor job on the defensive boards, allowing Lincoln second and third opportunities.
Pollard wasn’t upset afterward, but wanted to make sure his team didn’t take the result as a moral victory. The Orange Wave, he said, are too good for that. In the least, Jefferson showed Lincoln has a legitimate foe to contend with. Before the season began, some felt the Railsplitters would breeze to a PSALrecord fourth consecutive city championship.
“We’re gonna have something,” Pollard said, “to say about that.”