The Lowell Cardinals scheduled Senior Night for their first playoff game, rather than their regular season finale.
For one, they were confident throughout the year that they’d finish in a top four spot in Division 1 of the Academic Athletic Association (AAA). More importantly, that regular season finale was against the Lincoln Mustangs, who hadn’t lost a regular season AAA game since 2019.
It turns out the Cardinals could have bet on themselves a bit more, though.
Lowell led wire-to-wire and beat Lincoln 40-38 to close the regular season on Monday night, splitting the AAA regular season title.
It was the Mustangs’ first regular season AAA loss since Feb. 11, 2019, their first loss to an opponent from within San Francisco at all since Feb. 28, 2020, and their lowest point total since Dec. 21, 2018.
“The guys just committed to our style, which is to make the most out of every possession,” Lowell head coach Curtis Chan said. “They really committed on defense. They tried their best to get in the way, and we did really well on the boards.”
The regular season co-champs will enter the playoffs as the top two seeds, and they’ll each host quarterfinal games on Thursday. Semifinals are scheduled for next Wednesday at Kezar Pavilion, with the championship to be played two nights later on Feb. 24, also at Kezar.
“We’re probably gonna have to play them one more time and match their intensity,” Cardinals forward Alex Hedger said.
After falling behind by double-digits in the first quarter of the teams’ first meeting, Lowell (23-5, 13-1 AAA) brought that intensity from the start. Troy Smith hit an open 3-pointer 18 seconds into the game, and Mustangs coach Carl Jacobs immediately called a timeout to address a missed defensive assignment on the play.
Smith hit another 3-pointer on Lowell’s next trip down the floor, and Lincoln (23-3, 13-1) was forced to play catch-up for the entire rest of the game. The Cardinals led 14-7 after a quarter, 25-17 at half and took their largest lead at 33-21 on Hedger’s steal and reverse layup with 2:38 left in the third quarter, which turned out to be their final field goal of the night.
Quentin Kennedy sparked Lincoln’s comeback effort, scoring 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half after receiving a stern talking-to from head coach Carl Jacobs after complaining about a call. His putback sent the Mustangs into the fourth quarter down by eight, and he went coast-to-coast to cap off a 7-0 run to open the final quarter and force Chan to call a timeout with 6:25 remaining. His basket off a Jeremyah Aquino steal with 26.6 remaining got the visitors back to within a point.
“Quentin is very emotional, but I know he’s gonna be there at the end,” Jacobs said. "He ends up doing and saying the right things. He was saying the right things in the locker room after the game.”
Despite playing from behind the entire way, Lincoln had a pair of chances to win. Lowell center Sean Daly was called for a travel with 15.1 seconds left, and Aquino drove into the lane for a layup, but Smith played perfect defense to force a miss. Daly grabbed the rebound and made one of two free throws with 6.3 on the clock to make it 40-38, and after he missed the second, a pair of Lincoln players frantically called a timeout. Inbounding from half-court with three seconds left, the Mustangs had one last bid for a game-winning 3-pointer, but the shot hit the side of the backboard, officially ending Lincoln’s 34-game AAA regular season winning streak.
“This wasn’t a wake-up call, this was a reality check,” Jacobs said. “(Trailing) Galileo (by 17) was a wake-up call. We didn’t answer the wake-up call.”
The Cardinals didn’t make a shot from the field in the final 10 minutes, and they weren’t especially crisp at the free throw line, going 14-for-22 for the game, but in true Lowell fashion, they won it with their defense.
“We need to trust our guys 1-on-1, trust our guys in help defense and close out,” Hedger said.
Lowell limited Aquino to just nine points and five assists. His twin brother, Justin, missed the second half after experiencing an allergic reaction, presumably to dust in the locker room, at halftime. The reaction affected his asthma, and he was taken to a nearby hospital for examination.
After the game, Jacobs said that Justin was doing well and would likely be released before the end of the night. As of 10 p.m., he was only being kept for observation.
Cortevious Taylor, who posted a double-double in the Jan. 18 matchup at Lincoln, finished with seven points and nine rebounds after battling a combination of Daly, Teddy McCarty and backup center Jude Moreno. Both Daly and McCarty finished the game with four fouls.
“There were some tough calls, but we hung in there,” Daly said. “I had to not be selfish and keep playing for my team.”
Taylor did score Lincoln's first five in the fourth quarter, knocking down an open three and sinking a pair of free throws. He was 4-for-5 at the line, but as a whole, the Mustangs made just 10 of their 18 attempts.
Smith led the Cardinals with 11 points, while Brayden Lee and freshman Jalen Ly each scored seven. McCarty finished with six points and eight rebounds.
The win was Chan’s first against Lincoln, where he had coached from 2014-2018.
“In past years, it weighed on me, but I’m really happy to be where I’m at,” he said.