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Lance and Lincoln swat away challenger Jefferson

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Lance Stephenson stood alone deep on the right wing, the ball in his meaty hands and finally no orange jersey in front of him. He rose up and released the ball at the apex of his leap.    As the feathery jumpshot softly fell through the hoop, the capacity crowd exploded, fans waving their arms, banging the seats beneath them. The 6-foot-5 Stephenson hopped up and down, releasing an afternoon full of frustration with one mighty roar, than punched through the air like it was a barrier that had previously contained him.

With one shot, Stephenson exploded. So did the Lincoln boys’ basketball team. And Thomas Jefferson went home empty-handed, on the short end of a thrilling, 87-83 final that Stephenson took over down the stretch, scoring seven of his 20 points in the span of 1:41.

“Lance,” Jefferson coach Lawrence Pollard acknowledged, “is Lance. That’s what All-Americans do.”

Most of the way, the Orange Wave (6-1) made Stephenson give the ball up, double- and triple-teaming him on touches. He let his teammates do damage – unheralded newcomers to the Coney Island school like Raymond Oloughlin and Anthony Allen. The two guards received surprising starts – they were only in the lineup because point guard Shaquille Stokes was suspended for disciplinary reasons and coach Dwayne (Tiny) Morton opted for a smaller lineup to match speedy Jefferson – and finished with 43 points together, sinking open shot after open shot.

“He did that all last year in the playoffs,” Morton said of his star sharing the wealth.

“We knew what they were gonna do to Lance; it was gonna leave us open,” added Allen, who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. “All the time in practice, Lance gives us motivation. He says we got to have heart.”

Said senior guard Darwin (Buddha) Ellis: “Everybody worries about Lance, but we got a lot of (shooters). You don’t know who is gonna step up.”

The two were main reasons Lincoln (5-1), ranked 16th in the country by USA Today, led throughout. That, and the rebounding edge the Railsplitters enjoyed on the glass, receiving second and third opportunities almost every other possession. But the Orange Wave refused to go away.

Led by Keith Spellman and Joel Wright (team-highs of 21 points and 12 rebounds), the lead was down to 66-64 before Spellman fouled out with 4:46 remaining. After point guard Davontay Grace (14 points) sank two free throws, Jefferson was even. Then Stephenson, as only he can do, took complete control. Morton installed him at point guard to make it more difficult for Jefferson to swarm him defensively. He finished with five assists, many of them in the final quarter.

First was a two-handed slam to put the lead to five, then another fastbreak hoop, a right-handed dunk that shook the rim to its core. And with 1:19 to go, he drilled the aforementioned 3-pointer, pushing the lead to  81-72, capping an 8-2 run that also included an Oloughlin trifecta and an Allen off-balanced runner.

“I didn’t want to lose,” Stephenson said. “I want to go undefeated in the PSAL.”

“They made the big plays down the stretch,” conceded Spellman, who scored 19 points.

After Stephenson’s bomb, the two coaching staffs got involved, exchanging words. Play was halted for a few minutes. But they shook hands afterward. Pollard and Morton, after all, coach together during the summer with the Juice All-Stars.

“We can still argue and fight,” Morton said.

Added Pollard: “It’s all competitive. I don’t want to lose to the little fella. I’m coming for that top spot.”

The Orange Wave used the delay to their advantage, reeling off seven straight points. But down 81-79 with 33.6 seconds remaining, Wright missed a contested layup. He then turned the ball over, stepping out of bounds. After Stephenson was fouled, he remained down on the court, on his belly from the hard foul. He was removed from the game, forcing Morton to use a reserve. He settled on Xaverian transfer Allen West, a 6-foot-7, shot-blocking specialist. West hadn’t scored all game; he had attempted one shot, which he missed. But the senior sank both free throws.

“In practice,” Morton explained, “he has the best form.”

Jefferson left beaten, but not lacking confidence. The Orange Wave may have fallen short, but they took Lincoln’s best punch, frustrated Stephenson, played the majority of the final quarter without Spellman, their best player, and had a chance to tie late. Additionally, the Railsplitters held the home-court advantage.

“They got to come to our place next time,” Pollard said.

The next meeting should be just as intense, if not more so. Allen, the shooting guard, said this showdown “felt like a playoff game,” neither side backing down. What will Feb. 3 bring, when Jefferson plays host?

“It,” Morton said, “will be a mirror image.”

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