Jan. 6, 2018
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. --- The Lincoln Blue Tigers are beating bad teams, they're beating good teams.
They've been good at home, they've been good on the road.
How is this possible? Simple.
Because they're really good.
Yes, we're talking about those Lincoln Blue Tigers.
Not that they've been bad the last three years, because they haven't been. But this year's team is a whole, different level of good.
Saturday's game was a great example, when the Blue Tigers knocked off 20th-ranked Missouri Southern 90-83 at Jason Gym. This was a game Lincoln would always lose, especially the way it unfolded.
The Blue Tigers (10-3, 3-1 MIAA) had a 20-point lead with 14 minutes left. But just over 10 minutes later --- and on the heels of a 31-11 eruption by the Lions (11-3, 2-2) --- the lead was gone and it was 74-74 with 3:48 left.
"That used to be us, that used to be Lincoln," fifth-year Blue Tigers coach John Moseley said about the prospects of, at that point, losing to the Lions.
Not this time, not this team.
"We're working hard," Moseley continued, "to make sure that we maintain the progress we've made here, and these guys are trying to make their own mark."
The lead was never lost, but the momentum certainly was. Until this happened --- a four-point play by 6-3 senior guard Amariontez Ivory (Flint, Mich.) with 3:25 left that started the game-ending and game-winning 16-9 run.
It's always nice when you can turn a tie game into a two-possession lead on one trip down the floor.
"We got the ball to a guy who's made multiple big shots for us," Moseley said. "Then to get the foul on top of it ... I think that was absolutely the turning point, because you could feel that the momentum had swung completely in their (the Lions') favor."
Missouri Southern coach Jeff Boschee, a standout for the Kansas Jayhawks from 1998-2002, knows as much.
"After we got it tied," he said, "I thought we were going to win it. But that play was a killer, we just couldn't overcome it."
And it turned into just the second win over a nationally-ranked team for the Blue Tigers in "at least" 20 years.
"This is a huge win for us, because we're working hard to earn respect in this conference," Moseley said. "We've said all along that we've got a good group of young men to represent this program, and it's good to see them get this kind of signature win for us.
"These guys should know now, and have the confidence now, that they can play with and defeat any team in this league."
Lincoln's Terrance Smith, 6-8 senior from Memphis, was almost unstoppable Saturday. And you could have dropped the almost if he hadn't been sitting on the bench with foul trouble most of the second half.
"I think he likes to come to the bench to get a little rest, go in and score in spurts, then come back to the bench and get a little more rest," said Moseley, tongue firmly in cheek.
Smith's first half was massive, when he scored 21 of his career-high 35 points and grabbed 11 of his 14 rebounds, sparking the Blue Tigers to a 47-29 lead at the break. He finished a blistering 5-of-7 on 3-pointers.
"I think he's one of the best players in this league and I think he was able to capture that on the big stage," Moseley said. "It was a big moment for him and he played really, really well.
"He was lights out."
Smith and the Blue Tigers can create some serious mismatch problems, as they did against the Lions.
"They're hard to guard because their bigs can stretch the floor," Boschee said, "but they can also go down and post up. You put a smaller guy on them, they go post up; you put a bigger guy on them, and they go out to the 3-point line and pick and pop.
"So when (Smith) is shooting the ball as well as he did tonight, there aren't many people in this league who can guard him. He's a special talent."
Right now, the Blue Tigers are blue hot. They've won six straight --- the program's longest winning steak in 18 years --- they're 5-1 at home and 5-2 away from home, including 2-1 in true road games.
Moseley's first season was so Lincoln --- 4-24. But the next three years, the Blue Tigers put together winning seasons --- and that's the first time that had happened in 39 years.
"John's done an unbelievable job here," Boschee said. "He's a great coach and he's brought them up from the gutter. He's a great coach and an even better guy."
If you know Moseley, you know exactly what's Boschee's talking about.
"I thought we had a chance to be really good this season, because we've got a lot of good pieces," Moseley said. "You never know coming into a season how the chemistry is going to be with your guys. But they really share the ball, and we've had multiple guys step up on different nights and carry this ball club."
Lincoln's had four different players lead the team in scoring through 13 games, and five lead them in rebounding. Want more balance?
The Blue Tigers have six players averaging between eight and 18 points:
^ Smith (17.9 ppg.,and he also leads the team in rebounding, 7.0);
^ Ivory (14.0, team-high 41 3-pointers);
^ 6-4 junior Jonell Burton (12.8)
^ 6-foot junior Ni'Sean Rigmaiden (10.8, team-high 62 assists and 23 steals);
^ 6-5 senior Grant Olsson (9.9);
^ and 6-foot senior John Burton (8.3)
"I think these guys know they can go toe-to-toe with anybody in this league," Moseley said. "At the same time, we've remained humble enough to know there's not a single gimme-win in this league.
"We're happy about this win, but these guys still have a burn in their belly, they know there's still a lot of basketball to be played."
Outside the locker room after the game, there was a message relayed that had all the emotion of a Dear John letter --- but this time in a good way --- when a longtime Lincoln fan met Moseley with tears in his eyes and said, 'Thank you, coach, thank you.'
To be sure, these are not your older brother's Blue Tigers. They're not even your dad's.
"These players have put their heart into it," Moseley said, "they've put the work into it, and they've continued to get better since November. I truly believe the sky's the limit for this basketball team."
Hard to believe? Perhaps. But you can.
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Lincoln coach John Moseley talks strategy with senior Terrance Smith --- who poured in a career-high 35 points in the outing --- during the closing seconds of Saturday's game with Missouri Southern at Jason Gym.