Going into a WPIAL Class 4A semifinal Monday night between top-seeded Lincoln Park and No. 5 Highlands, Leopards coach Mike Bariski heard some chatter regarding the “unity” and “togetherness” of the two clubs.
Lincoln Park certainly had no issues playing as a team Monday, dominating the Golden Rams en route to an 87-64 mercy-rule victory at Fox Chapel High School in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score would indicate. Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas led all scorers with 29 points, including 15 in the first quarter, to go with 21 from Brandin Cummings, 13 from DeAndre Moye and 12 from Dorian McGhee.
“I will tell you, we have a great team who plays together,” Bariski said.
The Leopards (24-1) now will face section rival North Catholic in the WPIAL Class 4A championship at 9 p.m. Friday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center. The No. 6-seeded Trojans eliminated No. 2 Laurel Highlands, the defending WPIAL Class 5A champions, 74-59, Monday night in the other semifinal.
Lincoln Park won both matchups against North Catholic rather handily in the regular season — defeating the Trojans at home, 87-71, Jan. 3, before winning at North Catholic, 71-55, Jan. 27.
“It’s a blessing,” Thomas said. “We’ve had each other’s backs the whole season. … I just felt like we were all locked in and on the same page. Once we’re all on the same page and playing amongst each other, it’s hard to stop us.”
Highlands also had four players reach double figures, led by 17 points from Jimmy Kunst, but the Golden Rams simply could not keep up with the Leopards’ lights-out shooting and superlative play on both ends of the floor.
Lincoln Park raced to a 22-8 lead in the opening quarter, with Thomas knocking down three consecutive 3-pointers and Cummings sparking the crowd with a slam dunk. Highlands slowly started to battle back by knocking down some big shots, at one point cutting the deficit to six at 26-20. But the Leopards finished the quarter strong to take a 31-22 lead into the second before blowing the game wide open.
Some unselfish ball movement and timely shot-making helped Lincoln Park extend its lead to 18 while scoring 50 points in the first half — matching the Leopards’ point total from the entire game in their 50-40 quarterfinal victory against South Allegheny. Bariski said he didn’t chew into the team or make them work any harder in practice after the previous game, instead just allowing them a little more time to focus on shooting.
It’s safe to say Bariski’s approach paid off.
“You can’t have one bad game and dwell on that. You have to put it behind you,” Cummings said. “We came into this game as a refreshed team, not thinking about what happened last game, but we did want to make a statement.”
Lincoln Park came out on fire after halftime, starting the third quarter on a 16-2 run capped by a Moye 3-pointer to activate the mercy rule. The Leopards then took their foot off the gas while cruising the rest of the way, clinching their ninth trip to the WPIAL title game in 10 years. Last year was the only time they failed to make a championship appearance over the last decade, making this year’s journey back to Petersen Events Center even sweeter for Bariski and his players.
“We had eight in a row. Last year, we had a hiccup, now it’s nine out of 10,” Bariski said. “It never gets old.”
Other Class 4A semifinal
• Facing Lincoln Park in the championship will be a familiar foe, as No. 6 North Catholic (19-6) knocked off No. 2 Laurel Highlands, 74-59, at Norwin to reach the WPIAL title game for the seventh time in the past 15 years. Andrew Maddalon and Max Hurray led four players in double figures for the Trojans with 25 and 23 points, respectively, while Rodney Gallagher finished with a team-high 23 for the Mustangs (21-3). Nick Larson chipped in with 12 points off the bench and Matt Ellery tacked on 10 for North Catholic. The Trojans now face Lincoln Park in the WPIAL final for the fifth time in the past seven years, with the two teams splitting the previous four meetings.
Class 3A semifinals
• Top-seeded Steel Valley (14-10) found itself in an eerily similar situation to its previous game, a 56-54 win against Seton LaSalle in which the Rebels hit a go-ahead shot with 4.9 seconds left before star senior Makhai Valentine drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the win. This time, there would be no heroic shot from Valentine, as Deer Lakes senior Michael Butler lifted the No. 5 Lancers (16-8) to victory with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds remaining for a 65-63 triumph. Butler’s winning shot came only moments after the Ironmen had retaken the lead in another frantic finish that saw multiple lead changes down the stretch. The win sends Deer Lakes to the WPIAL title game for the first time in school history.
• B.J. Vaughn hit a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired, sending four-time defending WPIAL champion Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to the WPIAL finals for the seventh year in a row with a 53-50 win against No. 2 Neshannock (18-6). Rocco Spadafora scored a game-high 21 points to go with 13 from Vaughn and 10 from Bryson Kirschner. The No. 6 Chargers (19-5) won their past four WPIAL titles along with back-to-back state titles in Class 2A before being moved up to Class 3A for the current two-year cycle. Luciano DeLillo scored 15 points and Jack Glies finished with 12 for the Lancers.
For WPIAL postseason basketball brackets, results and schedules, go here.