HICKORY – After the East Lincoln defeated Forest Hills to advance to the 2016 2A State Championship, and the Yellow Jackets returned the favor by eliminating the Mustangs in the fourth round of the 2018 state playoffs, the teams met for a rubber match with a berth in this year’s title game on the line.
It was a game of runs at the Tarlton Complex on the campus of Catawba Valley Community College Saturday, March 9, where Forest Hills delivered a knockout punch in the game’s final four minutes that sealed a 71-62 victory.
A slow start for the Mustangs resulted in a 17-10 advantage for Forest Hills at the end of the first quarter, but the second quarter belonged to East Lincoln big man Justin Kuthan, who hit his first five shots in the quarter before missing a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer. Kuthan poured in 11 of East Lincoln’s 18 second-quarter points, as his production in the paint helped the Mustangs cut the deficit to 31-28 at halftime.
With each team close enough to taste a berth in the state title game, the second half was marked by a series of momentum swings, starting with a 7-0 run by East Lincoln to open the third quarter. The teams traded baskets throughout the remainder of the period before a buzzer-beating layup by Allden Horne gave the Mustangs a 45-42 edge heading into the fourth quarter.
The East Lincoln faithful were in full throat with their Mustangs just eight minutes from a state championship appearance, but that’s when the defending 2A state champions from Forest Hills showcased their title-winning mettle.
A frantic fourth quarter opened with a 13-0 run that put the Yellow Jackets in front 55-45, and East Lincoln in a corner with its season on the line. At that point, senior Sidney Dollar, who had scored just four points through the first three quarters, stepped up. Dollar exploded, turning defense into offense and sparking a 9-0 run that pulled East Lincoln within one point with four minutes left to play.
Forest Hills answered once more, however, outscoring the Mustangs 16-8 in the closing stretch as East Lincoln eventually lost Dollar and fellow senior John Bean to foul trouble.
The Yellow Jackets displayed balance, with four players scoring in double figures led by senior guard Nas Tyson, who finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. On the flipside, Mustangs not named Dollar or Kuthan combined to score just 14 points.
The loss marked a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar career for East Lincoln’s senior class consisting of Dollar, Bean, Horne and point guard Ben Zirkle. The 2019 class posted a 54-9 record over the past two seasons, including a 29-3 mark this year, which set the program record for most wins in a season. Dollar finished with 14 points and 5 rebounds in his final game in the green and orange of East Lincoln, while Bean chipped in with 8 points before fouling out and Zirkle contributed 8 assists.
While East Lincoln will lose four of its five starters from this year’s team, the cupboard is far from bare for the Mustangs heading into next season. Kuthan, who posted 34 points and 7 rebounds in the loss to Forest Hills, will return for his senior season after averaging more than 21 points per game to lead East Lincoln in scoring this year. In addition to Kuthan, the Mustangs will also bring back sharpshooter Myles Adams, who connected on 45 percent of his 78 3-point attempts this season, and point guard Jeremiah Jones, who proved to be a menace on defense as a freshman this year.