By Mike Monahan
Anthony Scales and Daillis Cox combined to score 39 points to help Lake Land secure its first winning season in four years.
The Lakers overcame a slow start to eventually take a halftime lead and build on it for a 77-66 win over Lincoln Trail in its regular-season finale at the field house Thursday night.
Lake Land, now 16-14 entering the postseason, finished 17-14 after the 2017-18 season.
The Lakers finished in a three-way tie for third place in the 10-team Region 24 and had an 8-8 record in Great Rivers Athletic Conference play, good for fourth place among the 10 teams.
Lake Land begins postseason play at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Laker Fieldhouse against the winner between Lewis & Clark and Olney Central College.
If Lake Land wins Saturday, the Lakers would play Monday at 3 p.m. at Rend Lake College in Ina.
“It feels good,” said second-year coach Julian Larry of the winning season. “We are not satisfied. It does feel good as when I got this job I wanted us to get better each year. Last year, we struggled at 6-14. This year we improved. We learned a lot together. I am excited as there are new times for Lake Land basketball to try and get back on top. We are working every day to get on top.”
Against Lincoln Trail, in the game that was moved up to 3:45 p.m. due to inclement weather, the Lakers trailed by six points in the first half after a 7-0 run by the Statesmen. It was a five point game, 25-20 in favor of Lincoln Trail, a team that is 14-13, when Lake Land went on a 10-4 run to close out the first half with their largest lead of the first 20 minutes, 35-29. The Lakers never trailed again and built the advantage to 11 points, 40-29 on a 3-pointer by Everett Stubblefield against the 2-3 zone of the Statesmen.
Each time the Statesmen would get close, the Lakers would answer. Lincoln Trail’s J.J. Reed made a 3-pointer to make it 46-43 Lake Land, who then built the lead back up to 11, 58-47 with 10:28 remaining. Again Lincoln Trail fought back to within three, 65-62 with four minutes left. Lake Land finished strong, outscoring the Statesmen 12-4 to win by 11.
“Throughout the year, our average margin of losing is two points,” said Larry. “We have had a lot of one and two-point games. We have won some close games and lost some close games. We go out and play hard. We understood the task at hand Thursday and made our free throws.”
Scales, Cox and Stubblefield led the Lakers with 20, 19 and 11 points, respectively.
Lake Land is 7-9 in games decided by fewer than 10 points and 3-3 in games decided by fewer than three points.
“In the second half, we started hot” said Larry. “We made sure to stay focused and warmed up very hard to prepare for the second half. We had energy and without a very big crowd (due to the weather) we had to create our own energy. We rebounded well in the second half.
Before the season started Larry thought the guards would be the strength of the team.
“We have a really good guard core and they are very good and very talented,” said Larry. “That is what identifies ourselves. I have been very happy with our play of Amar Kuljuhovic and Yassen Hussein. They stepped up in conference play. I am really pleased with everybody. I knew we would be better than last year and I knew we would be talented. I am upset we didn’t get to 20 wins. We want to get better every day.”
Larry said Arnardo Camacho has been a pleasant surprise this season. Larry said. The guard from New York City struggled early in the season, averaging 6.5 turnovers per game. But he has steadily improved. On Thursday, he had seven points, eight assists and nine rebounds.
“We knew he would struggle, but we knew he was very talented,” Larry said. “He was a street ball kid and we knew there would be adjustments for him. You can’t ask for much more from a point guard. He is doing what we ask of him.”
Lake Land averages 81.5 points per game behind Malachi Davis’s 16.6 ppg. Stubblefield nets 14 a game, while LeRoy Walker is at 12.7 and Cox at 11.1. Stubblefield has the most 3-pointers with 37 and the Lakers shoot 31.2 percent. Lake Land is a 69 percent free-throw shooting team that allows 80.1 points per contest. The top rebounders are Kuljuhovic and Cox with 6.1 and 5.7 per contes, while Camacho is tops in assists at 5.2 and Stubblefield averages a team-leading 2.3 steals per contest.
“We have definitely struggled as far as getting second-chance points,” said Larry. “As the year has gone on we have gotten better. That is key for us in the playoffs. We have to give that desire and focus to get the rebounds. Offensively, we have a lot of weapons.”
Lake Land is 1-2 in overtime games and its longest winning streak was four games, while the longest losing season was three games.
“It is hard to say if we are playing our best, but I know we are playing very well,” said Larry. “Saturday, it is playoff time. We have to win four games to get to the nationals. It is one game at a time.”
The team has not only gone through the regular occurrences of injuries, but also COVID-19 issues.
“We rescheduled three games and played five games in seven days,” said Larry. “At times not all of the players were playing due to COVID-19. We have had a lot of different things we have had to try and get through and figure out. I am proud of this group for fighting through adversity.”
LAKE LAND: Eversole 0 0-0 0, Scales 9 0-0 20, Wermert 0 0-0 0, Neal 1 1-1 3, Wallace 0 0-0 0, Close 1 0-2 2, Stubblefield 5 0-2 11, Camacho 2 3-4 7, Kuljuhovic 4 0-0 8, Cox 8 2-3 19, Hussein 3 1-1 7, Totals 33 7-13 77
3-point goals: Lake Land 4 (Scales 2, Stubblefield 1, Cox 1), Lincoln Trail 8 (Wicklife 2, Reid 1, Reed 1, Reeves 3, Thompson 1)