At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, I will be beginning my 30th year of covering high school basketball in the St. Louis metropolitan area. I am currently in the process of putting together a book to celebrate those 30 years of high school coverage. In the following weeks and months, I will be providing little pieces of material that will appear in the book. My first little nugget is about the historic three-peat state-championship performance by the East St. Louis Lincoln Tigers of 1989, thus becoming the first program in the history of Illinois prep basketball to accomplish the nearly impossible feat.
It was not supposed to be East St. Louis Lincoln’s year in 1989.
The Tigers had dominated the state of Illinois by winning back-to-back Class AA state championships in 1987 and 1988. Lincoln was led by 6’9″ McDonald’s All-American LaPhonso Ellis, who cemented his legacy as one of the best players ever to play in the St. Louis metro area and the state of Illinois by winning those two championships. The Tigers defeated Chicago area powers Chicago King in 1987 and St. Francis De Sales in 1988 to win those state titles.
Ellis graduated in 1988 and took his considerable talents to Notre Dame, where he enjoyed a stellar career. Lincoln was expected to field another strong team again in 1989, but few people talked about the Tigers competing for another state championship without Ellis’ imposing presence on the baseline. The power was supposed to shift back up North, especially in the Chicago Public League where Chicago Simeon and King were among the top teams in the country. Simeon had won the title in 1984 behind the late, great Ben Wilson while King won the championship in 1986. After a two-year interruption by Lincoln, the holy grail was supposed to return to Chicago.
The problem was; nobody told the ’89 Lincoln Tigers how things were supposed to work. They had their sights set on a three-peat and on xx, 1989, they accomplished the impossible. Thanks to a 18-foot jumper by senior guard Vincent Jackson at the buzzer, the Tigers’ defeated No. 1 ranked Peoria Central 59-57 for the state title and an unprecedented three-peat in the state of Illinois. It was the most exciting high school basketball game that I have ever witnessed in my thirty years of covering the sport and I had a chance to see it up close and personal.
It was the only time in my 30 years that I had been assigned to cover the Illinois state playoffs in Champaign. Usually, I am either in Columbia or Springfield, Mo to cover the state playoffs in Missouri. Except for this one year, I was headed to Central Illinois. Every year, I watched the Illinois state playoffs on WGN out of Chicago, but had never seen them in person. I was lucky to get the assignment and was just hoping that I would get to witness history.
With Ellis moving on after graduation, Lincoln’s new star became 6’6″ junior forward Cuonzo Martin. A tough-minded competitor, Cuonzo had a no-nonsense approach to his game that was deadly. Whether it was against the last place team in the league or the best team in the country, ‘Zo got his 20 points, 10 rebounds and a bushel of steals. It did not matter. He did not discriminate. Martin was joined in the lineup by a pair of athletic 6’3″ guards in senior Vincent Jackson and junior Chris McKinney. Plain and simple, these two got buckets. Jackson was an explosive athlete who could take it to the basket with gusto and had a jumper that was butter. McKinney was a kid with a great one-on-one game, plus a lot of swag and bravado to go along with it. If you had asked Chris who would win a game of one-on-one between he and Michael Jordan, he would say without hesitation, “I would.” Chris talked the talk, but he walked the walk.
At point guard was Rico Sylvester, a skinny 5’11” floor general who did not make mistakes and kept the team organized and moving in the right direction with his steady hand. The fifth starter was 6’8″ senior Ronald Willis, who provided a big body in the middle. Willis was a state champion in track and field in the shot put. Usually, he gave way to 6’4″ senior Sharif Ford, who came in early and rarely left the lineup. Head coach Bennie Lewis kept the bench short and sweet. Those were his five or six and he rode them all the way to the promised land.
Lincoln’s dream season did not come without a few bumps along the way. They were defeated in the Collinsville Holiday Tournament by a good Lincoln (Ill) team. They dropped a close 68-67 decision to Louisville Ballard and All-American guard Allan Houston in the 7UP/KMOX Shootout. They entered the postseason with four losses. However, the put things together to run to the regional and sectional championships. The Tigers faced Mt. Vernon in the Supersectionals at SIU-Carbondale and came away with a 55-47 victory to punch their ticket to Champaign for the third consecutive year.
Now, the fun begins.
In the state quarterfinals, Lincoln was matched up with East Aurora, a good team led by a smooth 6’6″ forward in Thomas Wyatt. The teams battled back and forth until the final possession, which belonged to East Aurora with the scored tied at 70-70. They were holding for one last shot to win the game. However, Martin stole an entry pass that was intended for Wyatt with five seconds left in regulation. With little time to waste, Martin heaved the ball down court to a streaking Ford, who in one motion caught the pass and threw up an awkward off-balanced shot at the basket. The ball swished through the net as time expired to give Lincoln an improbable 72-70 victory to advance to the Final Four.
Lincoln’s opponent in the state semifinals was none other than nationally-ranked Chicago King and coach Landon Cox. King had defeated Simeon to win the Chicago Public League title to advance to Champaign. They were the big favorites to win the state title. The xx were led by 6’4″ All-American guard Jamie Brandon and 6’6″ forward Johnny Selvie. While listening to all of the writers from Chicago talk about the game, they were pretty much anointing King as the next state champion while basically writing Lincoln’s epitath as the gritty two-time champion whose time was now about to end.
Well, Lincoln not only beat King 60-57, they pretty much controlled the game. Brandon was very good as he scored a game high 31 points, but Martin came through with 22 points and eight rebounds. McKinney scored 13 points while Sylvester chipped in with 10 points. For the second time in three years, Lincoln had defeated King in the state tournament.
Lincoln was now one game away from historic three-peat, but standing in its way was an undefeated Peoria Central team that was ranked No. 1 in the state at the time. The xx were a hell of team that was well-coached. They had a stud guard in senior Chris Reynolds, who was headed to Indiana. Peoria also had a prime-time 6’6″ small forward in senior Michael Hughes. He was really good.
The tone for Saturday night’s championship game was set before the teams even took the floor. They were in the same tunnel and they were chanting and woofing at each other before coming out to the Assembly Hall floor. The game was tremendous from start to finish. It was back-and-fourth for much of the contest. Lincoln appeared to have some breathing room as they build a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. However, Peoria Central reeled them back in and tied the game at 46-46 at the end of regulation.
At the end of the first overtime, Lincoln led 50-48 and needed only one more stop to win the title. Reynolds missed a shot at the head of the key, but the ball bounced right to Hughes, who flipped up a fall-away baseline jumper that swished through as the buzzer sounded to force at second overtime. The two teams traded baskets in the second overtime, which ended in a 52-52 deadlock.
The third overtime had plenty of drama. Lincoln scored first to take a 54-52 lead, but Peoria’s Charles White nailed a 3-pointer to give the xx a 55-54 lead. On the ensuing possession, Rico Sylvester answered with a 3-pointer of his own to give Lincoln a 57-55 lead. Reynolds hit two free throws with about 30 seconds left to tie the game, which set up Lincoln’s final possession and Jackson’s heroics.
With time running out, Jackson took a pass from Sylvester, dribbled between his legs and let fly with a jumper from just inside the top of the key with two Peoria players guarding him closely. Jackson’s jumper swished through the net, touching off a wild celebration. It was an unbelievable shot. I couldn’t contain myself. I even jumped up and started yelling because I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I really wasn’t supposed to do that because I was a media member covering the game, but the moment was so magical, I just rolled with it because I knew the magnitude of what had just happened.
To win a Class AA state championship in the state of Illinois, you have to have a great team and you have to beat a lot of great teams along the way to get there. Not only did Lincoln do it once in 1982, but they did in three years in a row in 1987, 1988 and 1989. For his accomplishments, Lincoln coach Bennie Lewis was selected the Coach of the Century by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Peoria Central coach Chuck Buescher put it best in a video on the history of the IHSA state tournament, “We had an outstanding team and we didn’t win it and (Lewis) has won three in a row. Unbelievable.”
I have enjoyed many memorable moments during my career, but those two days in Champaign might have been the most exhilarating. There’s nothing like March Madness in the state of Illinois and to see a team accomplish something that had never been done before in such a dramatic fashion was simply a sight to behold.
(Thanks to the Illinois High School Association, you can now watch this game and many more state playoffs games from the past as they have been made available on YouTube).
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