Aubrey Shelton gives his Lincoln High School boys basketball team a new word to focus on each week.
This week: Mental toughness.
OK, so that’s really two words.
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“Throughout all the chaos, we knew it was going to be a game of runs,” Lincoln’s Le’Zjon Bonds said. “You have to roll with it and be ready for whatever. When the game gets most insane, you have to have a level head.
“We treated it as if it was another game. Our coaches told us not to let the hype get to us.”
They didn’t, and third-ranked Lincoln improved to 17-0, pushed its league winning streak to 39 consecutive games and everyone who played scored as the Abes held off No. 5 Wilson’s late rally for an 82-75 victory on Wednesday at Wilson High School.
Lincoln (17-0; 11-0 3A Pierce County League) can clinch at least a share of its sixth consecutive league title with a win over Spanaway Lake on Friday.
This is the culture Shelton has created at Lincoln. He subs – a lot. And it’s been deadly effective in his 10 years (he has a career record of 230-57) because it allows for any player to step up any given game.
This time, one of them was Bonds, who finished had a game-high 19 points. Emmett Linton scored 15 points, but there was also Anthony Braggs Jr. catching fire in the fourth quarter – including an out-of-nowhere two-handed put-back dunk.
Braggs scored 13 points, and maybe the biggest shot of the game came from Jakhai Dillingham, whose 3-pointer with 1:03 to play gave Lincoln a 72-67 lead.
“I told the guys that I don’t think we won the game so much with our defense,” Shelton said. “But to see everybody play and they all scored and all had big shots in big moments … everybody is stepping up and it’s really fun.
“I’m really proud of them. They made winning plays like champions do.”
And it left Wilson coach Dave Alwert pretty impressed, too.
“I want to be pissed,” he said. “We’re rivals. It’s a flat-out rival game.
“But it was some good basketball,” Alwert chuckled. “It was No. 3 vs. No. 5 and I think maybe it was a No. 1 vs. 3. But at the end of the day, we have to play a little better.”
It looked like Lincoln was going to run away.
It jumped to a 24-13 lead by the end of the first quarter, with Bonds scoring 10 points. It reminded Shelton of his play in San Diego for the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic, when Lincoln won its division and Bonds earned first-team all-tournament honors.
“When he’s at his best, we are at our best,” Shelton said. “He leads us in assists and he gets after it defensively. Probably our best defensive stopper right now. And when he’s locked in and he’s ready to play, man, it’s beautiful.
“We know he’s the best point guard around when he’s ready to roll and he was ready to play tonight.”
Bonds transferred to Lincoln after his sophomore season and he’s found himself taking a greater role as Lincoln’s floor general this year.
But he said it hasn’t always been easy for him on and off the court.
“To be honest, these coaches got me out of my own head,” Bonds said. “They got me through to where I am now, where I can just focus on basketball and school. I feel like right now I’m at the best part of my life basketball-wise and in school simply because I’ve got the most support I’ve ever had.”
And this run, with this team?
“Most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball, by far,” Bonds said. “I’ve never felt a brotherhood like this before. Every day it’s someone laughing, something funny happening. You don’t know what’s next.”
Shelton said Bonds is Lincoln’s emotional leader, too.
“He’s able to be himself,” Shelton said. “I just want him to be him. He’s an amazing young man. When he’s relaxed and able to enjoy basketball and enjoy life and enjoy school, he’s incredible.”
When his production slowed down in the second and third quarters – back came Wilson.
The Rams (14-3; 9-2 3A Pierce County League) turned their 11-point deficit into an 46-45 lead when Kiwanis Thomas III drilled a 3-pointer with 3:40 remaining in the third quarter.
And it was ball game from there, to the delight of the packed Wilson crowd.
But then Braggs ended Wilson’s momentum.
He had what he said was the dunk of his life. Emmett Linton’s shot missed, but Braggs soared to grab it in mid-air and he threw it down with two hands for a 53-51 lead near the end of the third quarter.
“Man, it came off the rim and I was like, ‘This is my chance to go dunk,’” Braggs said. “I was like, ‘Ah, I’m going to go get it.’”
“I almost ran off the court, honestly,” Bonds said.
Wilson’s Nate Stokes hit a 3-pointer in the fourth to give Wilson its largest lead, 61-58, but then Braggs answered with back-to-back 3s of his own to put Lincoln back ahead with less than five minutes to play.
Londrell Hamilton’s bucket cut Lincoln’s lead to 70-67 before Dillingham found himself open from the right wing for a 3-pointer. He sank it with 1:03 remaining to give the Abes a six-point cushion.
Wilson’s Emmitt Matthews Jr., who finished with 18 points, just missed a fallaway 3-pointer on the other end and Bonds scored before Lincoln finished it by making 7 of 8 free throws.
“We just work hard in practice,” Braggs said. “And compete every day. It’s just each game, every day.
“And we just believe in everybody. We believe in all our guys – that we’re going to sprint back and get a steal or sprint back and get a rebound. Just believe. We believe.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
No. 3 LINCOLN
No. 5 WILSON
Lincoln: Emmett Linton III 15, Daemon Dillingham 8, Le’Zjon Bonds 19, Willie Thomas 8, Anthony Braggs Jr. 13, Kashaud Babbs 4, Jakhai Dillingham 5, Mykel Campbell 6, Julien Simon 4.
Wilson: Damani Green 8, Emmitt Matthews Jr. 18, Emani Mitchell 2, Daniel Santana 9, Darrian Bates 2, Kiwanis Thomas III 9, Dom Ellison 2.