Two gifted basketball talents, both playing for Western Pennsylvania high schools and both ranked among the top 15 players in the country in their class, went head to head on the first night of the season.

It has been decades, if ever, that a matchup of that kind has been played, so it came as no surprise that a large crowd showed up at Geneva College’s Metheny Fieldhouse Friday night to see Meleek Thomas and Lincoln Park square off against Alier Maluk and Imani Christian.

“This comes around only once in a while,” said Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski, slowly enunciating the words “once in a while.”

“I think it’s been a long time since Pittsburgh had such good basketball going on,” said Imani Christian coach Omar Foster. “We’ve got two kids that are ranked nationally getting a chance to go up against each other. You haven’t seen that in a while in Pittsburgh.”

Thomas is a 6-foot-3 guard at Lincoln Park and Maluk a 6-11 center at Imani Christian. Both are considered among the nation’s top sophomores — Rivals ranks Maluk No. 12 and Thomas No. 13 in the class of 2025. How highly regarded are they? Well, Maluk had scholarship offers from Texas A&M and LSU before he even started high school. Kentucky coach John Calipari was in town to watch both practice earlier this fall. Both Maluk and Thomas participated in USA Basketball’s Men’s Junior National Team minicamp in Colorado Springs in October.

Friday marked the first time the two five-star recruits faced off in a game, and it was Thomas’ team that came out on top. Thomas was the brightest star of the night, as his career-high 38 points propelled Class 4A Lincoln Park to a 77-74 win against Class 1A Imani Christian in what was also a showdown of teams that are WPIAL championship favorites in their respective classifications. Maluk, who was plagued by foul trouble, fouled out with 1:20 left. He finished with 13 points.

“Crazy,” Thomas said afterward. “As you could see, I had a blast. It was an amazing atmosphere.”

Imani Christian’s Alier Maluk looks to pass the ball during his team’s loss to Lincoln Park on Friday at Geneva College. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Lincoln Park trailed Imani Christian, 37-31, at the half before Thomas took over. He scored 25 of his points in the second half, including 16 in the fourth quarter. Thomas showed lots of flashes last season as a freshman, but he seemed to put all of his talents together Friday. He scored on slashes to the basket, 3-pointers, jumpers and putbacks, and even posterized an opposing player as he tossed down a thunderous dunk in the third quarter that had the gym buzzing for quite a while.

Was the throw down the biggest of Thomas’ young career?

“It’s up there,” he said, smiling.

It was a sequence late in the game that showcased Thomas’ talent on both ends. Thomas blocked a shot off the glass before dribbling the length of the court and laying it in to give the Leopards a 68-67 lead with 2:39 left. They led the rest of the way. Imani Christian had the ball trailing by three in the final seconds, but turned it over.

“It was monumental,” Bariski said of Thomas’ performance. “We have energy in our locker room, but nothing like this tonight. He brought it there.”

Overall, Thomas made 12 field goals, including two 3-pointers, and was 12 of 14 from the line. 

Lincoln Park also got 22 points from junior guard Brandin “Beebah” Cummings, a fantastic player in his own right who has offers from Pitt, Duquesne, Creighton and South Caroilna. Bariski called Thomas and Cummings “unique talents.”

Maluk is one of those, too. The tall, lanky post standout who moved to the United States from South Sudan when he was 3 years old had a big effect on the game, particularly due to his length. Maluk blocked a few shots and altered some others, and even though he didn’t score a ton, was active around the glass when he was in the game. Staying in the game was the problem, as he could never escape foul trouble. Maluk connected on a 3-pointer in the second quarter and scored nine points in the first half, but didn’t score in the third quarter and tallied only four points overall in the second half.

“I thought Alier played really well, but he was in foul trouble, so he didn’t get a chance to play the minutes that he should have played,” said Foster, a 1996 Westinghouse graduate whose Bulldogs reached the PIAA football championship for the first time Friday.

Maluk said he has worked hard to improve his lateral movement since last season, while his coach said Maluk has improved most significantly with his strength and basketball IQ.

“He’s one of the best in the country,” said Foster. “He’s 6-11. He can play on the wing. He can shoot 3s. He can go to the rim. He can dunk. He’s a shot blocker. He runs the floor like a guard. He’s what you’re looking for as a coach. I’m thankful.”

Added Bariski, “He’s talented. I think he needs the weight room a little bit because we were leaning on him. But I think he’s a kid who can stretch you. He hit a big shot in the corner, and I think his bread and butter is that he can stretch the floor. But we attacked him. That was our plan. Attack the big guys and get them into foul trouble.”

It worked. Imani Christian’s Virgil Hall, a 6-8 junior who has a few Division I offers, had four fouls and didn’t score until the fourth quarter when he collected each of his 10 points. Sophomore guard Dame Givner, a transfer from Obama Academy, scored a team-high 18 points in his Imani Christian debut.

Thomas and Maluk have big dreams, with playing in the NBA being the ultimate goal. Both have a lot of time and a lot to do before then. That includes picking a college. Thomas has offers from the likes of Indiana, Missouri and Kansas State, and Maluk’s list of offers includes Auburn, N.C. State and West Virginia. Pitt has offered both players.

The two are friends, but making it to the NBA hasn’t been a topic of conversation. Instead, the two local young stars — Thomas lives in the North Hills school district and Maluk in Bethel Park — have discussed something else.

“We talk about putting Pittsburgh on the map,” said Maluk. “This is more of a football town. It’s a football state. People want to go to prep schools out of state and not rep their city. We want people to stay home and rep their city.”

While no one should label Western Pennsylvania a hotbed for high school boys basketball talent quite yet, the resurgence taking place right now is rather noteworthy. In addition to Thomas and Maluk, North Hills junior Royce Parham is considered one of the country’s top 75 juniors. And if Friday was of any indication, fans, players and coaches are excited to watch this development unfold.

“I think it’s great,” Foster said. “You give the youth something to look at. When we go to bigger cities, you see this kind of basketball all the time. Being able to bring this back to the city is pretty awesome.”


The Hampton boys won their first game of the season Friday, but for their coach, it was win No. 500. Joe Lafko picked up the milestone win in his team’s season opener, a 66-60 victory against Seneca Valley in the North Hills tournament. Peter Kramer made his Hampton High School debut, scoring a game-high 28 points. Kramer, a junior guard, attended school in the district through eighth grade before attending Shady Side Academy the past two years.


Nick Sukernek connected on eight 3-pointers among his 31 points to help Upper St. Clair outlast Seton LaSalle, 87-82, in the Upper St. Clair tournament. The score was tied, 36-36, at the half. Upper St. Clair outscored Seton LaSalle, 32-17, in the third quarter, but the Rebels held a 29-19 advantage in the fourth. Matthew Gaither added 24 points for the Panthers, while Seton LaSalle’s Connor Spratt knocked down five 3-pointers and scored 31 points.


Rodney Gallagher scored 24 points, but he wasn’t the biggest thorn in Mt. Lebanon’s side Friday. That was Laurel Highlands teammate Keondre DeShields, who poured in 30 points in leading the Mustangs to a 64-59 win against the Blue Devils in the Mt. Lebanon tournament. The Mustangs outscored the Blue Devils, 18-10, in the fourth. Nate Girod led Mt. Lebanon with 14 points.


In an early showdown of WPIAL championship favorites, Class 5A South Fayette held off Class 6A Upper St. Clair, 45-39, in the Moon tournament. Ava Leroux, a 6-4 senior and Elon recruit, led South Fayette with a game-high 15 points and Villanova recruit Maddie Webber added 10. Leroux’s basket with 4:50 left put the Lions ahead for good. Sophomore Rylee Kalocay paced Upper St. Clair with 19 points.


The only reigning PIAA champion among WPIAL girls teams began the season with a win. Neshannock rolled to a 47-24 victory against Wilmington in the Karns City tournament. Recent Seton Hill commit Mairan Haggerty finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds and Megan Pallerino added 20 points and 11 rebounds. The Lancers own the WPIAL’s longest current unbeaten streak at 15 games.


***Evan Berger, Thomas Jefferson. Berger put up a 40-burger in his team’s season opener. Berger went off for a school-record 42 points to lead Thomas Jefferson to an 83-63 win against Belle Vernon in the MVI Classic at Ringgold. Ringgold transfer Zion Moore led the Leopards with 32.

** — Haley Kostorick, Shaler. Kostorick was terrific from behind the arc, dropping in eight 3-pointers and finishing with a game-high 31 points in a 70-49 win against Seton LaSalle in the Play 4 Mae Tournament at Woodland Hills.

* — Alayna Rocco, North Catholic. It was a strong opening night for the Harvard recruit, who scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead North Catholic, last season’s WPIAL Class 3A champion, to a 64-49 win against Gateway in the Play 4 Mae Tournament at Woodland Hills.


* A pair of highly regarded freshmen girls made statements on opening night. Quaker Valley’s 6-4 Mimi Thiero went for 22 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocked shots in her team’s 50-47 win against Montour in the Montour tournament. Erica Gribble also scored 22 points in Greensburg Central Catholic’s 58-25 win over Ringgold in the Greensburg Salem tournament. Thiero is the sister of former Quaker Valley star and current Kentucky player Adou Thiero, while Gribble’s sisters Alayna and Olivia were high school standouts at Norwin before playing in college, Alayna at Pitt and St. Josephs, and Olivia at Marietta.

* Pine-Richland, Belle Vernon and Steel Valley all won games in Friday’s PIAA football semifinals, but all three of their boys basketball teams fell on opening night. Pine-Richland lost to Fox Chapel, 50-38; Belle Vernon was tripped up by Thomas Jefferson, 83-63; and Steel Valley was trounced by Uniontown, 91-21.

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at