SHINNSTON-- Back in early December, Lincoln coach Jeff Osbourn sat in his office, trying to give his outlook on the season ahead.
This was going to be the last shot for a group of seniors who had started since their freshmen year to win a state title that had eluded them the previous three years.
Osbourn wanted the best out of his team, so he scheduled the best. He wasn't concerned about any losses his team took along the way, just as long as it helped prepare them for this, their last go-round.
Thursday night, as the last seconds ticked off the clock of the Cougars' 68-46 win over Robert C. Byrd, Lincoln completed a run that is nothing short of remarkable.
The win finalized a 50-0 regular Big 10 season record during the reign of Tabitha Hutson, Teresa Medina, Jessica Morris and Sarah Cochran.
"It really is something these girls accomplished," Osbourn said. "I don't know if there's ever been a run (like this) by a group or if there ever will be. It seems like there's always one conference game you lose that you really weren't expecting. It's not like this is a weak conference. Bridgeport is always really strong and Grafton has become a good team. There's always something unexpected, though, that you can't control like the sickness or injuries."
There has been plenty of both for the Cougars, who now stand at 19-0 and 12-0 in Big 10 play. An injury midway through the season to Hutson was followed by Teresa Medina's torn MCL. In Lincoln's last full week of the season, Hutson was once again hit, this time by the flu bug. Still, through it all, the Cougars escaped unscathed and in some ways better.
Enter the play of forward Jessica Morris. Morris, who had lost her starting job most of last year, turned into possibly the most improved player in the Big 10, averaging 13.9 points per game.
Her 30 points and 18 rebounds led Lincoln in a critical win over Grafton while the Cougars were without the services of Medina and a flu-stricken Hutson.
"That's what we've been wanting from Jessica," Hutson said. "She started the season really strong and really picked her game up a lot lately."
Medina was lost two weeks ago, but is expected to return to practice tomorrow and see some spot play Tuesday night against Tucker County - a team it defeated for the first time this season.
"A loss now really wouldn't be a big deal, but it's a little different because it's Tucker County," Hutson said. "They've been a thorn in our side for a while and I don't think anyone wants to lose to them."
Or anytime for that matter. It was the Mountain Lions who escorted Lincoln out of the state tournament two seasons ago - a game which Hutson left with a torn ACL. Last year, the Cougars fell in overtime in the semifinals to eventual champion Oak Glen.
Each loss has been a learning experience Hutson says.
"I think we've taken something from each time we've been down there," she said. "We got to experience the tournament for the first time as sophomores and last year we learned how to play under pressure. We know what we have to do now."
And that is still get through a very difficult sectional and regional tournament which includes Ritchie County, South Harrison, Bridgeport and Grafton.
"There's nothing easy about the road ahead," Osbourn said. "Ritchie County played us very tough down there and Bridgeport and Grafton are both teams who can beat you.
"The 50 wins has been pretty unbelievable, though. I don't think I would've ever expected that."