Despite trailing the entire game against Lincoln High School, Lowell was lingering late in the fourth quarter and only trailed by eight points with 2 minutes remaining.
That’s when Lincoln junior guard Mitchell Lee single-handedly shut the door on the Cardinals.
In just over a minute of game time, Lee hit a straightaway 3-pointer, pick-pocketed a Lowell guard and scored a fast-break layup, took a charge on defense and knocked down two free throws to seal Lincoln’s 55-42 Academic Athletic Association win at Lowell.
“Defense is the basis of our whole system, and with the defense comes good offense,” Lee said. “When a team is coming back like that, you just want to keep your composure and keep your head in the game.”
Lee, who Lincoln coach Matt Jackson identifies as the team’s best defender, scored the Mustangs’ final seven points of the game, but has often run into foul trouble this season because of his aggressive play.
“He’s an Energizer bunny and sometimes that’s a disadvantage,” Jackson said. “He likes to go for steals a lot, and is bumping and reaching in, but he’s quick enough to do it. He will guard anyone and he thinks out there, and that makes life miserable for a lot of opposing scorers.”
Lincoln senior guard Ares Brown also had a standout defensive game with a team-high five steals and the Mustangs (12-11, 7-1) held Lowell scoreless through nearly five minutes in the second quarter to spur a 12-0 run.
The Cardinals (10-10, 5-3) never fully recovered from that run and could only cut the deficit down to seven points once, when senior forward Max Pollard knocked down a 3-pointer with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter.
Lowell largely corralled Lincoln scorers Brown and Chris Young, who were held to 11 points apiece, with a varying defenses, but could not find a consistent scoring threat.
Lowell senior Avery Nicastro-Aikman came on late and scored a game-high 16 points, but no other Lowell player scored more than six points.
The Cardinals also consistently missed contested layups and shot 9-for-19 from the free-throw line, while Lincoln hit 15-for-17 attempts.
“We are just starting to turn the corner on understanding how hard we have to play and we get into these lapses of a month ago, when we didn’t have to play, as hard,” Lowell coach Rob Ray said. “Against the better teams, like Lincoln and Mission, you gotta play hard all the time.”
The Cardinals are undefeated when playing Neff Division opponents, but have gone 0-3 against the stacked Lang Division.
Still the Neff favorites, the Cardinals will have to take on a Lang Division team in the first round of the AAA playoffs.