The mood in the Lincoln High School locker room was somber to say the least, after the Lions lost two weeks ago in the HCIAA Coviello boys’ basketball semifinals to Union Hill, the third time this season that the Lions suffered a setback at the hands of the Hillers.
“They were a little hurt and disappointed,” said Lincoln head coach Troy Smith, knowing full well that his team was not going to repeat as county champs. “They were down and depressed and didn’t want to even speak. Everyone said that we were rebuilding this year, but the kids didn’t want to hear that. They wanted to prove something this year by repeating and they didn’t get the chance.”
“We were very disappointed,” said senior Tymel Jackson, the team’s leading scorer. “We wanted to make history by becoming the first Lincoln team to go back-to-back and it didn’t happen. I felt like we let the team down and the school down.”
Even though the Lions lost the HCIAA playoff game, they still had games to play in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs.
“That’s what we tried to tell them,” Smith said. “The season wasn’t over. We had another season to play in the states. After we lost [to Union Hill], we had the snowstorm and I thought everyone was going to be down. But when they came into practice, they came in focused and ready. I know Tymel was a little crazy after we lost, because he felt he let the team and school down and felt we should have won the county again. But I had to remind them that sometimes, you just don’t win. We could either pack it up and go home or take care of business in the state playoffs. We told the seniors that it was one-game elimination time.”
“We came back with intensity, and we were ready to play,” Jackson said. “This team has chemistry and plays hard all the time. We play hard together.”
So the Lions picked themselves up by the boot straps and focused on the second season known as the state playoffs. They dismantled Lodi with ease in the first game, then took care of Chatham in the second round, beating a team with an All-State performer in Penn State-bound Billy Oliver in their building in the process.
“Daquan [Pettiford] took that game personally,” Smith said. “He took Billy Oliver on one-on-one. I was a little worried going into the game, but Daquan took over.”
Finally, the Lions defeated Orange Monday night to capture the state sectional title, the school’s first state sectional title since 2002 and only the second NJSIAA sectional crown the school has earned since 1980.
And the Lions, slated to face Dwight Morrow of Englewood in the Group II state semifinals Thursday night, were two wins away from history.
Only one Jersey City public school has ever captured an overall state championship – Snyder, which won the NJSIAA Group III title in 1990.
You would figure that a city with such a rich and storied basketball history would have more than one state crown. Sure, St. Anthony is in hot pursuit of a national record if the fabulous Friars take home their 25th state title this weekend as expected. But that’s in the Parochial or Non-Public groups. The public schools have not achieved state greatness except that famed Snyder team.
“I did say that to them,” Smith said. “They have an opportunity to do something that not many kids from Jersey City have done. It didn’t become a reality until we beat Chatham. Now, the kids are thinking they can do this.”
“It feels great to still be playing,” Jackson said. “If we can make some history, it will make up for losing. It would be much better than winning the county last year.”
It would certainly give people like Jackson and Pettiford a legacy of excellence never before seen in Jersey City public school history, an HCIAA title one year and a state title the next.
But Smith credits the lesser known members of the squad, like point guard Dung Danh, who has been brilliant as a floor leader in the postseason. Senior Matik Jones has made his fair share of baskets and sophomores Jamahl McDaniel and Tyquion Miller are coming of age at the right time.
“They were down at one point in the season and they were able to come back,” Smith said. “I think we were looking for an identity all season and we’ve now finally found it. It was all about how the kids responded after the loss in the county playoffs. Right now, there’s a new sense of confidence.”
And with two more wins, there will be a new sense of history.
“I made sure to remind them of that,” Smith said. “It will definitely add a little fuel to the fire. I always believed in them. They might not have thought they could do it. But I had faith. I don’t think any of them are used to playing this long into the season.”
Just two more games await. – Jim Hague