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PREP FOCUS: Cardinals regroup for tough stretch run, then 6A playoffs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tim Graham of Lincoln High leans in between Grant defenders Duarte Papa-Vicente (left) and Deiondre Bird for a layup attempt Friday night at Grant.It's been wild. Now it could start to get crazy, too, for the Lincoln Cardinals boys basketball team.

The Cardinals fell to 11-7 with their 60-54 loss at Grant on Friday — their sixth defeat in a game that went down to the final minute.

The Cards now face six more tough games, four away, as they close the regular season and try to secure the best state ranking they can for what is shaping up as a battle royal for Class 6A tournament spots.

"I think there's going to be some crazy second-round games this year," Lincoln coach Sean Christensen says, "with some really good teams having to go on the road but beating higher-ranked teams."

Lincoln came out of the Grant game ranked 14th in 6A. Grant is No. 27, but the Generals suffered most of their nine consecutive losses without 6-6 standout wing Deiondre Bird, who is back now from a broken jaw.

The Cardinals, as good as they have been, remain a young team that has to overcome a lack of height, as well.

"We gave up too many second-chance points against Grant," Christensen says. "We gave up too many offensive rebounds to Deiondre — if you have give him two chances … he shoots 50 percent, so if he misses the first one, he's going to make the second one.

"Trying to rebound, being undersized, has been a challenge for us."

Defending taller players has been another challenge for Lincoln, and on Friday night making free throws was a challenge, too.

"We were up seven points and missed five straight at the line," Christensen says. "If you don't capitalize and push the lead to 12 at that point, it gives Grant confidence."

It's all part of the growth process for Lincoln, which had little varsity experience going into the season and has two freshmen playing key roles in the rotation.

"We're just trying to find our way, still," Christensen says.

Lincoln has lost twice by three points and three times by four points. Friday's first of two regular-season meetings with Grant was a two-point game inside the final minute. And even in an 11-point loss to South Eugene, the Cards were close till late in the contest, when the Axemen pulled away by converting their free throws.

"We could easily have won half or more of the games we've lost," Christensen says.

But the remaining schedule looks, well, challenging, to use that word again. It starts with a Tuesday game at the state's No. 1-ranked 5A team, Jefferson, which has beaten several of the top 6A clubs already. On Friday, the Cardinals go to 6A league foe Thurston, which lost to Lincoln by four points before Christmas.

After that, Lincoln plays at Madison, at home against Sheldon, at Wilson and back home for the regular-season finale versus Grant on Feb. 25.

Then it's on to the Oregon School Activities Association state playoffs.

"Things don't get any easier," Christensen says.