By Kyle Daubs
In a world of firsts, Mattoon added another one.
The pandemic forced spectators to witness history on Tuesday when Mattoon defeated Lincoln 35-32 for what is believed to be their first win over the Railsplitters since 1982.
Lincoln coach Neil Alexander has registered more than 700 wins at Lincoln since 1990 but this is his first to Mattoon, so of course, the Mattoon locker room had to celebrate with a water bath of head coach Ryan Ghere (kneeling, above).
“They were pretty excited. It felt like we had won a regional,” said Ghere.
The win improved Mattoon to 5-3 on the season and tied the team with Lincoln and Mahomet-Seymour with the second-least losses in the conference. While there are plenty of teams left to play over the next week, this team believes that second place is a realistic goal.
“Lincoln was still in the running for a conference championship,” Ghere said. “They were probably thinking if they beat us and Charleston this week they could look to tie. Instead, it knocked them down in the standings and then raised us a game. With our three losses, we’re right up there with the second and third best teams in the conference.”
To get here, Mattoon used a stellar defensive performance to hold Lincoln to three fourth-quarter points in a game where they nearly led the whole game.
Sam Bradbury helped lead Mattoon to a 10-6 lead thanks to six first-quarter points. By halftime, Bradbury had 11 of the team’s 20 points in a 20-14 lead. That prompted a message at halftime that the Green Wave was good enough to win this game.
“We talked about believing we could win,” said Ghere. “Sam had 11 of our 20 points in the first half, so we knew they were going to increase the pressure, so we had to handle that. We didn’t handle it perfectly but it was enough to get us into the fourth and keep us within reach.”
However, Lincoln entered the fourth quarter with a 29-25 lead after holding the Green Wave to just five points. Ghere credited Lincoln’s pressure and limiting Bradbury’s touches in the paint but the team reverted to the team’s game plan going forward.
“We felt really good going into the game because we stuck around with them for a half the first time around,” said Ghere. “The third quarter is when they pulled away from us but other than that it was a good game for us. We had a good game plan. Let them dictate the pace. Be patient on offense. Move the ball around. It was a low-scoring game, so a four or six-point run was a big deal.”
The defense turned up in the fourth and held one of the best teams in the conference to just three points for eight minutes.
“For three quarters, we were outstanding. The last 4:15 of the game, we held them to one basket,” said Ghere. “The guys switched every screen and stayed in between them. They rebounded so well. I think it came to us outrebounding them 27 to 18, so we held them to one chance each time.”
With just a handful of games left, Mattoon is a few games game behind Effingham in the conference standings and is a half-game out of second place.
Ghere said this group is the “most bonded team” he has had in four years.
“They have to be. It’s just us in the gym,” said Ghere. “With so many makeup games because of quarantine and postponements, we had to throw everything together. With 15 players and four coaches, we have to trust each other.”
Ghere believes that this team had “20-win” potential and would have loved to see a full season. Heck, he would have loved to see a Coles County crowd during their two wins over Charleston.
But this win, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 40 years, is something the pandemic cheated out of the Mattoon community.
“If the student body and community were there, it would have been an emotional atmosphere,’ said Ghere. “I had friends and family reach out about watching online and how they went back and watched but I can’t imagine how loud that gym would have been in a normal year.”