WPIAL basketball teams have reached the point of the season when it’s win or go home, and arguably the most talented team in the entire district was not about to get locked out of moving onto the second round Friday.
“We were locked in because that WPIAL championship, that was never our main goal,” Lincoln Park standout junior Brandin Cummings said. “We had three goals coming into the season. That was a section championship, a WPIAL championship and a state championship. We’re only two-thirds of the job done, so we have to stay focused.”
Lincoln Park was locked and loaded Friday, and in the only opening-round PIAA matchup involving two WPIAL teams, the host Leopards rolled to an 80-63 win against South Allegheny in a Class 4A first-round game in Midland.
There was no “championship hangover” for Lincoln Park (26-1), which hung 80 points on South Allegheny (20-7) — four more than its WPIAL-leading 76 — after the Gladiators held the Leopards to a season low in a 50-40 Lincoln Park triumph in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Lincoln Park advances to play Highlands (22-5) Tuesday in the second round. The Leopards defeated Highlands, 87-64, in the WPIAL semifinals.
“We talked about the pseudo championship hangover,” said Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski, fresh off of winning his fourth WPIAL title. “It’s the coaches’ job to make sure they don’t have it because you can let teams have that by jumping on them and being serious right away. We had fun for a couple of days. The next day we get a little more serious and the day before the game we get up in them a little bit because we need to get serious.”
Cummings and fellow backcourt star Meleek Thomas were all business Friday. Thomas finished with 31 points and Cummings scored 21. Dorian McGhee added 11 points while DeAndre Moye and Dontay Green chipped in six apiece for Lincoln Park, which dominated the glass and feasted on second-chance opportunities, something South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo said was a point of emphasis for his team heading into the game.
“Those are backbreakers,” DiCenzo said. “You force guys to miss, which they don’t miss often, and they run and chase it down and score the ball or get fouled. We were down 15 at the half. I think you could attribute those 15 points to second-chance points. Also live-ball turnovers on our end lead to their transition. It’s difficult enough to stop them from scoring, but when you give them leak-out layups and dunks, it kind of energizes them and it’s kind of deflating to us.”
Lincoln Park shot poorly in that first matchup when it failed to make a 3-pointer (it made four Friday), but the Leopards didn’t have much difficulty scoring Friday. Lincoln Park led, 8-0, three minutes into the game before opening a 40-25 halftime advantage.
South Allegheny made two runs in the third quarter after Lincoln Park took a 20-point lead, but each time the Gladiators pulled closer, the Leopards had an answer. Cam Epps connected on consecutive 3-pointers for South Allegheny to cut its deficit to 14, but Thomas shot back with a 3-pointer. Later in the quarter, South Allegheny scored six consecutive points to make it 51-40, but McGhee followed with a bucket and Cummings added two of them to push the lead back to a more comfortable spot.
“We battled throughout the whole game,” Thomas said. “They had little runs throughout the game, but we knew from the beginning that we had to stay on top, stay wanting it more than them and bringing more energy than them.”
Bryce Epps, South Allegheny’s all-time leading scorer, had a team-high 22 points in his final high school game. He helped the Gladiators compile an 81-23 record in his four seasons. Mike Michalski added 13 points, Cam Epps 12 and Jeston Beatty 11 for the Gladiators, who advanced to the PIAA Class 3A semifinals a season earlier.
As usual, Thomas and Cummings were terrific. Thomas had a couple of big dunks and almost reached a big personal milestone. His 31 points put him only four shy of reaching 1,000 career points in just two seasons, a rarity for a sophomore. He now sits on 996, which means he will almost certainly reach the plateau against Highlands. Cummings, with brother Nelly watching from the stands, dazzled with ability to make tough shots look easy.
“It’s as good of a duo as I’ve ever coached against,” DiCenzo said. “You don’t see that around here too often with two high-level Division I players on the same team. They’re special. They make very difficult shots. You think you have them where you need them, and then they take an off-balance shot and it goes in. And their ability to rebound their own misses is very good, too. Your job’s not done once you get them to take a difficult shot. You’ve got to finish the possession and we just didn’t do a good enough job of that.”