Willie Thomas was near the free throw line when the player caught the ball underneath the basket.
But in the next beat, Thomas was there. As the layup went toward the basket, Thomas’ outstretched arm was already orbiting above it as he spiked the ball to teammate Le’Zjon Bonds.
That block and Lincoln’s tenacious, everywhere-at-all-times pressure defense set the tone for the rest of the half.
“I don’t think I’ve every had a player play so hard and with such enthusiasm,” Lincoln coach Aubrey Shelton said of the 6-foot-6 Thomas. “He just does everything.”
Thomas scored a team-high 19 points and had six blocks to lead the third-ranked Lincoln High School boys basketball team in its 61-53 comeback win over No. 5 Wilson on Friday night in a packed, loud Lincoln gymnasium.
Thomas did that on 9 of 12 shooting and had 10 points in the first quarter, including a breakaway dunk.
“I just came out and was like, it’s a big game, big rivalry, and I just wanted to get my team the victory,” Thomas said. “It was big because I don’t like losing to no 253 teams.”
Sometimes his hyper play comes off as volatile and emotional, but Shelton said he’s the heart of Lincoln’s team, and a big reason why the five-time league-champion Abes haven’t lost to a fellow Tacoma team since the end of the 2014-15 season – in a district championship game against Wilson.
“He’s definitely one of a kind,” said Lincoln’s Emmett Linton III, who had 15 points. “He gets us going. He’s yelling, blocking shots, getting rebounds – he was so big, especially in the second half to get us going.”
Lincoln turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and Wilson took advantage in the second quarter, going on a 15-6 run and taking a 32-26 lead at halftime.
Emmitt Matthews Jr., Wilson’s 6-foot-7 UConn signee, scored 12 of his game-high 22 points in the second quarter.
But Lincoln switched to a full-court trap out of halftime and forced turnovers on six of the Rams’ first 10 possessions of the third quarter. And when Wilson did get a good look, Thomas was there to swat it away as Lincoln took a 36-33 lead before Wilson scored its first basket (other than a free throw).
“You saw an experienced team that just changed their game plan a little bit and caught us,” Wilson coach Dave Alwert said. “Aubrey – I tip my hat. He picked it up, got the trap going and our guards weren’t able to see the backside action and they took away our shots. I don’t think Emmitt saw the ball the entire third quarter. I got outcoached.”
Lincoln led 43-40 by the start of the fourth quarter and took its largest lead of the game at 52-42 when state high jumper Mykel Campbell took off from near the right block and ignited the crowd with a right-handed dunk with 4:45 to play.
And Wilson (4-1) struggled from the floor, making 3 of 19 3-pointers.
Lincoln has now won 22 consecutive games against schools from Tacoma, with its last loss coming on Feb. 21, 2015, in a district championship game against Wilson, 77-74.
“The hard part is I want to dislike all of Lincoln, but I really respect their whole program,” Alwert said. “I do. And what I loved is how much respect both of these teams had at the end of the day. It was a good fight and they shook hands after and it was just a great moment to watch. It was great to see all those kids really embrace each other.”
Lincoln opened the season with a win over Bellarmine Prep, and has since beat Foss, Mount Tahoma, Stadium and Wilson and improved to 6-0 after going 26-0 last year before losing in the state semifinals to eventual state champion Nathan Hale last season.
“I think it’s our guys just believe,” Shelton said. “They believe in each other, they believe we’ve had success and we expect it. We believe that if we play the way we are capable of, we’ll be successful. We’ve been lucky to have great groups of seniors, and this year I got four guys who have been playing varsity since they were freshmen (Thomas, Linton, Bonds and Anthony Braggs Jr.). That leadership – they are not going to get rattled. That’s a big key to our success.”
Thomas was first at Washington High School before transferring to Lincoln three years ago. He’s since been their rim protector, rebounder and spark plug.
On Friday night, Thomas was hitting an array of inside floaters and a few mid-range jump shots to go with his tough play down low, too, against Wilson’s taller frontcourt of 6-7 Matthews and 6-8 Nathaniel Stokes.
And when Lincoln would force a turnover or after one of his big blocks, it’s rare not to see Thomas shouting in excitement or kicking his legs in the air.
“He’s just so excited, borderline hyper to be playing – so much joy,” Shelton laughed. “He might not fit every college system or coach because he’s got that emotional personality, but he’s the greatest kid in the world. I wouldn’t change him at all. Sometimes we just have to calm him down.
“But some college is going to be so, so lucky to get him. A game like this, on this stage – that was big.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
No. 5 WILSON
No. 3 LINCOLN
Wilson: Emmitt Matthews Jr. 22, Emani Mitchell 2, Daniel Santana 6, Nathaniel Stokes 5, Darrian Bates 8, Kiwanis Thomas III 5, Dominique Ellison 5.
Lincoln: Emmett Linton III 15, Daemon Dillingham 3, Le’Zjon Bonds 7, Willie Thomas 19, Anthony Braggs Jr. 9, Jakhai Dillingham 6, Mykel Campbell 2.