Railsplitters rise up

Floor general: After getting his feet wet and starting at point guard as a freshman, Lincoln’s Blair Bowes is back for his sophomore campaign. He scored 18 points against Robeson and has improved his game.

By all accounts, Blair Bowes and Raymond Fred had successful go-rounds for the Abraham Lincoln basketball team in 2012–13.

As a freshman point guard, Bowes was the team’s second-leading scorer, and Fred, a junior shooting guard also in his first varsity campaign, was close behind as Lincoln’s third option. However, if you ask both players how their first varsity season went, they’ll point to Lincoln’s 5–13 overall record, as well as the 4–8 Division C mark that was good enough to qualify them for the playoffs, but not much more.

Now, another year older, wiser and better, Bowes and Fred have officially bid last season farewell. In addition to being teammates at Lincoln, the two play AAU ball together, so an entire summer of playing alongside one another has paid major dividends for the Railsplitters early on in 2013–14.

Take Monday afternoon’s home contest against division foe Paul Robeson for example. After a 5–2 non-league stretch (including wins over Freire Charter of Division B and Father Judge, as well as a close loss to Archbishop Ryan), Lincoln opened Division C play with a win over Mastery North. Then, its mettle was instantly tested, as the Railsplitters lost three straight to division rivals West Philly, Strawberry Mansion and highly regarded Central by a combined nine points, one of which was on a buzzer beater.

So how would Bowes, Fred and company respond against visiting Robeson, which came into the contest with a 3–1 mark in Division C?

With sheer gumption and toughness, and a lot of help from the team’s two best players.

Fred poured in a career-high 29 points, and Lincoln needed every one of them, while the steady, shifty Bowes added 18 in support of his teammate in the Railsplitters’ critical 76–70 victory that put them right back in the mix in Division C.

“Things just went the right way, which was really great, because we needed that after the last three,” Bowes said. “Last year we were 5–13, and of course we’re better than that. I know we’ve got players. I’m a good point guard, and I have guys around me who can score the basketball. I think we can definitely get back to the playoffs when we play as good as we did today.”

Despite certain stretches where it lacked defensive intensity (Robeson turned a 36–24 first-half deficit into a 56–56 tie early in the fourth before Bowes’ and Fred’s heroic fourth-quarter efforts put the game away), Lincoln’s offense looked extremely in-sync. Bowes is as pure a point guard as you’re bound to see, and he mixes an ability to score with his technical abilities of seeing the court and being able to find open teammates. Having a weapon like Fred — who can score at will — at his disposal makes Bowes’ job so much easier.

“He can light up the court so fast,” Bowes said of Fred. “We know each other out there; I find him, and he finds me. Honestly, he makes me look better, because I know my assist numbers could go from one to eight in about three minutes. If I pass it to him and he’s open, he’s hitting it, but he can also get to the rack and draw fouls, which makes things better for us.”

Fred scored 11 of his 29 points in the critical fourth quarter, including a perfect 6-for-6 at the foul line when Robeson was still breathing down the Railsplitters’ necks.

“Last year, I was kind of the third or fourth guy,” Fred said. “Now after working really hard this summer, I came back and kind of felt like it was my team, so I’m trying to take over. Personally, I think we’re one of the best teams in the division, and we shouldn’t have lost the games we lost. A win like this, it motivates us just as much as those losses did.”

And when Fred says “take over,” it shouldn’t be mistaken for any semblance of selfishness. As the team’s point guard, Bowes directs the show, and he and Fred, as well as he and the rest of the supporting cast, seem to perfectly complement each other because of the point guard’s ability to see everybody on the floor.

“It’s really easy to play with Blair, because he draws so much attention,” Fred said. “If he gets in the middle, the defense will collapse thinking he’s going to shoot, only to have him kick it out for an open shot. The defensive attention he gets allows me to sag off to shoot a three, or get myself to the bucket.

“As a result, our chemistry is good. All the personalities, we put that to the side; we just want the wins and to make it to the playoffs. I’m a senior, so of course I want to make things happen. I want the ball in my hands at the end of the game.”

You can add Fred and Bowes’ head coach to the list of growing believers.

“Blair is just a true point guard, always looking to get his teammates involved,” said Al Brown, Lincoln’s fourth-year coach. “And Ray, he’s just a flat-out scorer that brings that type of mentality to the game. They complement each other perfectly. It makes my job easier knowing I have two coaches on the floor, two extensions of myself. I know Blair will take care of the ball, just like I know Ray will hit the big shots, while still having confidence in the teammates around them.”

In addition to Fred and Bowes, senior Akquil Harrington added 11 points, six rebounds and three steals, while fellow senior Zyhir Baker-Elam notched 10 of his 11 rebounds in the first half for Lincoln (7–5, 2–3 division). Jihaad Fluellen led Robeson (4–4, 3–2) with 23 points.

As for where they go from here, Fred and Bowes just hope the car drops them off a little further on down the road than it did a season ago when the Railsplitters won just five games total. On Monday, in the first week of January, they won their seventh.

“We want to make the playoffs, and we think we have a bit of a favorable schedule coming up,” Fred said. “I think we can do it, so long as we keep having efforts like this. We know, and everybody knows, that defense wins games, and we played real good ‘D’ today when we had to and locked them down in the fourth.”

“Nobody on this team gets mad at each other,” Bowes said. “If I do something dumb, I’ll say ‘my bad’ and make up for it on the next one. I know I have a big role on this team, I understand that. I’m just a sophomore, but all of these seniors trust my word.

“For sure we think we can go far together. When things are going well, that’s how I like it to be. I never want it to go bad. I love the game of basketball and I love my team. That’s the type of person I am. I come out and play hard, and I’ve got a lot of heart. I think we all do.” ••

He shoots, he scores: Lincoln senior guard Raymond Fred lit up visiting Robeson for 29 points in Monday’s 76–70 win. Fred is averaging 20 points per game in Division C play.

Dynamic duo: Abraham Lincoln basketball players Raymond Fred (left) and Blair Bowes present matchup nightmares for opponents. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS