All signs pointed to a walkover.
Even going through the motions, No. 1 Lincoln held a 16-point lead over eighth-seeded Forest Hills early in the third quarter. The crowd was quiet, even thinning out somewhat after taking in three dramatic PSAL Class AA quarterfinals.
Yet someone forgot to tell the Rangers there was a script to the final game of the day at Carnesecca Arena. Out of nowhere, the Queens school, which lost its head coach, Ben Chobhophand, Feb. 15 to suspension, came roaring back.
Grinding out baskets and stops against the bigger, more athletic and nationally ranked Railsplitters, Forest Hills was remarkably within one point with 4:00 remaining. It never could quite get over the hump – Lincoln’s Kamari Murphy and Isaiah Whitehead made sure of that — in a 50-42 loss on Sunday, though Forest Hills didn’t have the downtrodden look of a team whose season had just ended at the final horn.
“I’m very proud,” said Forest Hills senior Nick Padgett, who tallied a team-high 11 points. “We held them to 50 points. I don’t think they were ever held to 50 points [this year].”
Padgett was kicking himself for missing two free throws with a chance to go ahead after a furious 23-8 lead had gotten them within a point. Lincoln answered with eight straight points thereafter to extinguish the uprising.
“Maybe it would’ve been a different outcome to this game,” he said.
Whitehead led Lincoln (26-2) with 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists, Murphy had 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks and Shaquille Stokes finished with 10. Jose Torres and Shawn Branch contributed seven points apiece for Forest Hills.
Lincoln coach Dwayne (Tiny) Morton felt his team lacked “energy” throughout, even when it led 30-14 in the third quarter. He credited the feisty Rangers for that, for the way they hustled from start to finish, went back up after their shots were repeatedly rejected and kept on coming until the clock hit triple zeroes.
“I hope we know we can’t play like that, we gotta be high energy,” he said. “The message is we got to come [out] more hungry than the other team.”
Morton would’ve liked to see his guards force-feed the ball into the post. When Lincoln got it to Murphy and 7-footer Jordan Dickerson good things happened. The two, after all, combined to block 16 shots, an evident sign of their size advantage.
Morton didn’t subscribe to the notion it was good for Lincoln to get a game like this out of their system. Then again, he didn’t expect the quarterfinal to be a rout like many thought, either. Lincoln scrimmaged Forest Hills early in the year and it was competitive, he said.
Lincoln is one of four teams left in “AA” and made the plays in crunch time to advance. After Padgett missed the two free throws when the lead was down to one, Stokes hit two free throws, Whitehead drained a 3-pointer and Murphy scores inside, icing the game.
As for Forest Hill, a tumultuous final few weeks to the season came to a close. Feb. 15, the PSAL suspended Chobhaphand after an investigation found he illegally recruited former Francis Lewis student Denzel Thomas. He is appealing the decision.
The senior-dominated Rangers dedicated the rest of the season to the seventh-year coach and they went a step further this postseason, besting Robeson, 69-60, last Tuesday. Sunday, they gave Lincoln and its slew of Division I prospects all it wanted, surprising many in attendance.
The effort was emblematic of the program Chobhaphand has built, devoping it into a Queens power and city contender. The coach wasn’t on the sideline barking out instructions, but his players felt his presence.
“He was with us,” Padgett said. “You just can’t see him. He’s here.”