LINCOLN - Neil Alexander didn't get worried when the lead was down to 29-25 early in the third quarter Tuesday night.
The Lincoln High School basketball coach began chewing his fingernails long before that. Alexander was nervous a couple weeks ago when he saw the Railsplitters would face University High in a Class AA Lincoln Regional semifinal game.
"We knew they would be a very disciplined team and a team we would have to play 32 minutes," said Alexander.
Third-seeded Lincoln used a 12-4 run to start the fourth quarter to finally break free from the Pioneers. Matt Schick scored 22 points and Brandon Farmer added 15 to lead the Railers to a 62-50 victory.
Only in the last 30 seconds did Alexander say he finally relaxed.
"I thought it was a bad matchup. They're a very good team," said Alexander. "If they were healthy, they wouldn't be a 15 seed."
Lincoln improved to 24-7. The Railers face the winner of tonight's Normal West-Ottawa game for the championship at 7:30 Friday night.
U High (13-14) was led by senior guard Seth Doran with 18 points. Doran made two 3-pointers and reserve Matt Mersch sank another in the final two minutes as the Pioneers never gave up, chopping an 18-point deficit to 60-50 with 30 seconds left.
This was U High's first-ever Class AA regional game. The Pioneers were moved up when the Illinois High School Association went to an enrollment multiplier for non-boundaried schools this school year.
"It was going to take us a perfect game coming in here, and we didn't play a perfect game. But we battled as hard as we could," said U High coach Cal Hubbard. "With the size and strength of the kids we had out there, we gave it everything we had."
Lincoln's 1-2-2 ball-press defense ultimately did in the Pioneers. The Railers forced U High into 17 turnovers and enjoyed a 22-3 advantage in points off turnovers.
In fact, the Railers jumped to a quick 7-0 lead thanks to a couple turnovers before U High even got a shot off.
The Pioneers eventually settled down, committing only six turnovers in the second half. But every U High turnover seemed to result in a Lincoln basket.
"We turned the ball over because we're tentative with the basketball. We tried to attack their pressure a little differently, and we didn't do a very good job with it," said Hubbard. "Some of it is because Lincoln is a really good defensive team and some because we didn't react well."
U High trailed 15-6 after the first quarter, with its only points coming on two Drew Miller 3-pointers. The Pioneers cut the gap to 24-17 with a minute left until the half on another Miller 3-pointer. Lincoln got a boost of momentum when, after a Railers' missed shot, Chris Gossett stole the ball under the basket and put in a layup before the buzzer for a 26-17 halftime lead.
But U High kept coming back. Tyler Cook sank two 3-pointers as the Pioneers began the second half on an 8-3 run. Cook nearly cut the deficit to one, but another 3-point attempt went in and out. Schick followed on the other end with a 3-pointer to halt the Pioneers' rally.
Farmer scored five baskets in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter to give the Railers breathing room.
Lincoln shot 47.8 percent from the field, but was only 7 of 21 outside the arc. The Pioneers sank 9 of 16 3-point attempts while shooting 42.1 percent.
Alexander credited the defense of reserve Jeff Oller with holding down Miller in the second half. Miller took only three shots after the intermission and finished with 11 points.
The game was Hubbard's first as U High coach in the gym where he coached for two years before coming to U High in 1989.
"In tournament play you have to be big enough and strong enough. We weren't, but I really appreciate the opportunity to come down here," said Hubbard, smiling. "It's been a wonderful homecoming."