Some of the WPIAL’s biggest stars took the court Thursday at Community College of Beaver County’s Golden Dome in Monaca. It was a golden matchup between undefeated teams regarded as two of the top Class 4A squads in the state.
Pitt coach Jeff Capel was among those in the large crowd. But if you missed this one, don’t worry. The teams Capel came to see could meet again for a WPIAL championship a few months from now on Pitt’s home court.
In what could very well be a championship preview, Lincoln Park defeated Laurel Highlands, 70-66, in a highly entertaining game in the loaded Central Valley Roundball Holiday Classic.
“This is what you play for,” Lincoln Park junior guard Brandin Cummings said. “You love playing in a big environment and going out and putting on a show for the crowd. This game had a deeper meaning to it. We’re the top two teams in 4A. I think the winner of this game is going to have the advantage the next time we play. Big ups to those guys. They played their hearts out. It was a hell of a game.”
Cummings and the game’s other superstars showed up and put on a display. Cummings finished with 23 points and sophomore teammate Meleek Thomas added 20 for the Leopards (6-0). Senior Rodney Gallagher poured in 35 for Laurel Highlands (6-1), including 24 in the second half when he nearly willed the Mustangs to the win. Fellow senior Keondre DeShields added 17. All four of those players entered the game averaging more than 20 points a game.
Lincoln Park, last season’s WPIAL Class 5A champion, took a 53-52 lead on two Cummings free throws with 3.2 seconds left in the third quarter, and the Leopards led the rest of the game. Laurel Highlands pulled within a point three times in the final quarter. A basket from DeShields pulled Laurel Highlands to 67-64 with 32 seconds left. Thomas, though, followed by hitting 1 of 2 from the free-throw line to make it 68-64. DeShields scored again with 26 seconds left to pull the Mustangs to within two, but Thomas went 2 of 2 from the line to extend the lead back to four. Laurel Highlands missed several shots in closing seconds.
Thomas came into the game averaging 27 points a game and Cummings 26. Both have offers from Pitt. Also in the crowd was Cummings’ brother, Nelly, a former Lincoln Park standout who now starts for Pitt. Thomas is considered one of the top sophomores in the county.
“Outstanding,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said of Lincoln Park’s two stars. “They tell me that Thomas is one of the top 10 players in the country. That’s pretty good. And the Cummings boy is really good, too.”
But so is Gallagher. The West Virginia football recruit was masterful in the second half after scoring 11 in the opening half. He needed to be, too, after DeShields went to the bench with his fourth foul just two minutes into the third quarter. Laurel Highlands trailed, 42-34, at the time.
“It was the Gallagher show after that,” Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said.
Not only was Lincoln Park unable to pull away, but Laurel Highlands actually drew closer as Gallagher scored the Mustangs’ next 15 points.
“He’s a great player and I expected that coming into this game,” Cummings said. “We did our best to stop him, but great players like that, you just have to hope they miss.”
Blaise Krizner then drained a 3-pointer with a minute left in the quarter to put the Mustangs in front, 52-51, giving them their first lead since early in the second quarter. DeShields eventually returned three minutes into the fourth quarter.
“I thought this was the marquee game today,” said Bariski, whose team plays Friday against Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia. “Gallagher is unreal. DeShields is unreal. But we have a couple of unreal guys, too. It was a great battle. Their two against our two and our three against their other three. And our three did pretty damn well, especially McGhee.”
That would be Dorian McGhee, a junior forward who added 11 points and did a fantastic job on the glass.
“He had a great game with just how much he impacted the game and rebounding and cleaning the boards and everything,” Thomas said.
But McGhee wasn’t alone. A sizable difference in this game was the productivity of role players from both teams. Take out the four superstars, and Lincoln Park outscored Laurel Highlands, 27-12. The Leopards also got 7 points from DeAndre Moye, 5 from Mikey Crawford and 4 from Dontay Green, who was playing his first game of the season after recovering from a foot injury he suffered playing football. Meanwhile, Laurel Highlands is breaking in three new starters.
“They just have to get confidence,” Hauger said. “I think Rodney and Keondre are trying to help them get that confidence. But this was their seventh game, and that is basically all the varsity experience they have. And Lincoln Park, I’m sure they have a little bit more than that in their unit.”
A few months from now, both heavyweights should be well-seasoned … and battling for a WPIAL title likely will become reality.