BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Abraham Lincoln's Emeul Charleston summed up the setting at packed Freedom High on Saturday afternoon.
"Almost all of the people here were Hazleton supporters," the junior guard said. "They had like 2,500 fans to our 50. For us, it was basically a road game in a hostile environment."
The overwhelmingly partisan crowd could not stop Lincoln from continuing its Cinderella run in the PIAA Class 6A tournament.
Charleston and the Railsplitters escaped the favored Cougars, 76-74, in overtime in a wild and thrilling semifinal to move to within a victory of the program's first state championship. The contest featured 14 ties and eight lead changes.
"Everybody doubts us. Everybody is against us," Charleston said. "But we keep making history. No one expected Lincoln to make it this far."
The difference was Khalif Meares' runner in the lane with 10.7 seconds remaining. Meares came through in the clutch after the Railsplitters held the ball for 1 minute, 15 seconds.
"I just wanted to get to the rim and finish," the 6-foot-2, 160-pound senior guard said. "I knew it was going in when it left my hands."
On Hazleton's final possession, Josh Samec's off-balance, three-point attempt from the right wing missed badly. The 6-7 senior and West Chester recruit was guarded closely by the 5-10 Charleston and 6-7 forward Aseem Luckey.
Of all the Hazleton supporters on hand, Lincoln coach Al Brown said, "It was the first time the kids had ever played in front of such a huge crowd. I told them before the game, 'Play like it's an empty gym.' "
In a rematch of the District 12 final, Lincoln (24-6) will take on Roman Catholic (23-6) for the state crown at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Hershey's Giant Center. The Railsplitters downed the Cahillites, 86-76, for the district title on March 3.
"There's nothing better than that," Brown said. "I think it's great for District 12. We'll see who comes out on top."
Meares delivered 20 points, five steals, three assists, and two rebounds against Hazleton.
"I just knew I had to come out and play hard," he said. "That's a good team we beat. We played a little better than them at the end."
District 2's Hazleton (26-2) was riding a 16-game winning streak. Its only other setback came against defending PIAA Class 6A champ Reading.
Samec made one of two free throws to give the Cougars a 64-58 advantage with 3:11 left in regulation. Lincoln answered with an 11-4 burst that was highlighted by Charleston's trey and Meares' driving bucket.
Shakeir Morrison (17 points, seven boards), Tryee Corbett (15 boards, eight points), and reserves Sanhei Day (eight first-half points) and Luckey (seven points, two steals, two blocks) also played key roles in the dramatic triumph.
After not taking a shot in the first half, Charleston, who nailed his second trey early in overtime, finished with eight points. He added three assists and three steals.
Lincoln 16 21 16 16 7 – 76
Hazleton 22 15 14 18 5 – 74
L: Tyree Corbett 8, Shakeir Morrison 17, Khalif Meares 20, Emeul Charleston 8, Jahi Randall 6, Sanhei Day 10, Aseem Luckey 7.