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PREP FOCUS: Cardinals continue to win

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jonah Pemberton (left), a 6-1 freshman, drives to the basket for Lincoln High.The formula might not work all the time for everyone, but it has been working for the Lincoln Cardinals boys basketball team.

The young Cards improved to 6-0 on Thursday, beating Spanish Springs of Sparks, Nev., 49-46 on Thursday in their first game of the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic in San Diego.

The Lincoln team left Christmas evening and won't be back till New Year's Eve.

On Friday, the Cardinals play Poway High of San Diego, and even Lincoln coach Sean Christensen admits he isn't sure if his team can keep its streak going.

"I don't know. I have no idea. This group is so young," he says. "We're winning games, but can we be consistent?

"And our freshmen (Nolan Bertain and Jonah Pemberton) might hit a wall, with all the time they are committing to this and to school work. It's all new to them, playing at this high a level."

Lincoln's only returning starter is 5-10 senior point guard Matt Peeler, and the only other Cardinal who played mush last year is 5-6 senior wing JJ Jackson.

"I think we're pretty good," Christensen says, "but the first four games we shot the ball pretty well, and now I think teams are starting to get film on us and are trying to take some things away that we like to do."

The Cards will play four games at Torrey Pines, then return for a Jan. 4 non-league game at home against one of the state's top Class 5A teams, West Albany.

Lincoln then will get back into 6A league play, traveling to Sheldon on Jan. 7.

The Cardinals' league looks very formidable, with Grant, South Eugene and Thurston proving challenges.

It helps, Christensen notes, that Lincoln is off to a 2-0 start, with victories at home of 61-58 over South Eugene and 73-69 against Thurston -- in three overtimes.

The goal is to finish in the top three in their district, which would earn the Cardinals an automatic spot in the state playoffs.

"We don't really want to have a play-in game like we did last year," Christensen says, "and we want to get back to winning the league championship, anyway."

Peeler is averaging about nine points and eight assists per game.

"He's our leader," Christensen says. "He's really stepped up. He's just steady. He's not going to wow you with athleticism or some of those things that people look at, but coaches recognize a kid like him who can defend and is savvy and takes charges and defends and does all the little things."

One of Lincoln's most versatile players is 6-2 Bailey Hazard, who usually has a wing or guard role "but he can guard posts if we need him to," Christensen says. Hazard got the defensive task against 6-6 South Eugene standout Eli Lininger, who is headed to the Yale basketball program.

"Bailey has been guarding the other team's best players for us," Christensen says. "He's just one of those kids who loves basketball. He likes the kid from 'Hoosiers.' He should be playing in some gym in Indiana. He eats and sleeps it, hardly ever comes out of the game, hits 3s, makes the right pass, defends. He's been very steady."

Lincoln also has been getting a big boost from 6-5 senior wing Tim Graham, who had 25 points against South Eugene, 21 versus Benson and 20 against Thurston.

"That was a wild game," Christensen says. "They played exactly the way they wanted to. Their coach is really good, and he had his guys really prepared to guard us. They got out to the 3-point line and jumped out to a 17-8 lead. We were playing from behind the whole game and just had to grind it out.

"The overtimes were all about resiliency, and Nolan hit a huge 3 to tie the score at 60-60 at the end of the second overtime. (5-10 junior) Trent Callan made seven free throws in overtime and controlled the game after Matt fouled out in the fourth quarter.

"We're getting contributions from the whole team -- that's how we've got to go about it, everybody's got to contribute, whether that's defensively or offensively.

"It isn't always pretty, but we're finding ways to win."