Simmons leads Lincoln Memorial to NCAA Division II finals
North Point graduate concludes senior season with Railsplitters
Although his senior season at Lincoln Memorial University did not end with a victory, North Point High School graduate Gerel Simmons enjoyed a stellar final season with the Railsplitters who suffered a 90-81 setback to Augustana in the NCAA Division II national championship game in Texas.
Simmons started nearly every game for the 34-3 Lincoln Memorial (Tenn.) squad, averaging 20.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per contest for the Railsplitters. He scored 35 points in Lincoln Memorial’s 103-102 victory over West Liberty (W.Va.) in the national semifinals before recording 21 in the loss to Augustana (S.D.). He boasted a season-high 37 points in the Railsplitters 98-82 win over Carson-Newman (Tenn.) last November.
“This season really was a dream season for me and for all of my teammates at Lincoln Memorial,” said Simmons, who was selected as a Division II Bulletin All-American. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but we left it all out on the court in the championship game. We fell behind and started to come back, but they stayed ahead.”
Simmons, who is on target to earn his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in May, knew the 2015-16 Railsplitters squad could make a deep postseason run when they traveled to Queens (N.C.) and prevailed 92-66 on a night when the North Point alum scored 26 points, grabbed five rebounds and added four assists. At the time both teams were ranked in the Division II top 10 and Queens was three spots higher in the poll.
“We knew from the beginning of the season that this team could do well,” Simmons said. “But when we went to Queens and beat them at their place by over 20 points that’s when we knew that we could be something special. At the time they were ranked seventh and we were tenth and we went into their place and handled them pretty good.”
Lincoln Memorial’s convincing tally over Queens in Charlotte came just past the midway point of an eventual 23-game win streak that would eventually catapult the Railsplitters to the South Atlantic Conference tournament title and the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional tournament that Lincoln Memorial hosted. During the streak, the Railsplitters won 21 games by 10 points or more, 11 of them by at least 20 points.
Lincoln Memorial began the SAC tournament with a 101-75 victory over Tusculum (Tenn.), defeated Newberry (S.C.) 105-81 and then downed Wingate (N.C.), 95-83, as Simmons scored 27 points against Tusculum and then 19 points in each of the other two victories.
But as well as the Railsplitters played in the SAC tournament they were even better in the Southeast Regional, posting victories over Lander (S.C.), Queens and Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) by an average of 26 points. Those lopsided victories and prolonged winning streak earned them the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Frisco, Texas.
“We really didn’t think of ourselves as the top seed,” Simmons recalled. “We came into it thinking that we were the eighth seed and that we had something to prove.”
Simmons scored 16 points in the Railsplitters’ 93-75 victory over Barry (Fla.) in the national quarterfinals, then tallied 35 points on 13 of 21 (62 percent) shooting from the field, including a quartet of three-pointers as Lincoln Memorial forged a dramatic 103-102 victory over West Liberty in a national semifinal.
“That was a great game,” Simmons recalled. “The atmosphere was great and the game went back and forth. Both teams played really well. It just came down to who could execute on the last couple of possessions. It was definitely a game that I will never forget.”
Lincoln Memorial’s 23game win streak and bid for a Division II national title came to an end in the championship game, however, as the Railsplitters were upended 90-81 by Augustana in front of a boisterous crowd inside the Dr. Pepper Arena and a national television audience.
“They really brought a crowd,” Simmons said. “We had a good cheering section there, too. Plus, I heard there were about two million people watching on national television. They got the lead and each time we came back they seemed to have an answer for us. We left it all out on the court. It wasn’t the way that I wanted to end my college career, but it was great to be there.”
Simmons said he is considering playing in Europe this summer and is in the process of finding an agent. When his basketball playing career concludes, Simmons expects to land a full-time job in law enforcement, perhaps as a United States Marshal.
In the meantime, he could have two Railsplitters heading overseas with him, Jalen Steele and Curtis McMillion.
“Gerel is a great kid from a good family, so I know he will be able to make us all here at Lincoln Memorial proud no matter what he does,” Railsplitters assistant men’s basketball coach Davis Fisher said. “He’s always in a good mood. We had great chemistry on the team and he was a big part of it. He should do well overseas. We are likely going to have Jalen and Curtis also going over there to play. It’s a whole different world over there, so hopefully they’ll surround themselves with people they can trust.”