Uniontown has a great basketball team, but Lincoln Park has a habit of making great teams look ordinary.
That’s exactly what the Leopards did while playing in front of a jam-packed house Monday night at Charleroi High School, blowing out the Red Raiders while lighting up the scoreboard for 53 first-half points en route to an 85-64 mercy-rule victory in the PIAA Class 4A semifinals. The win earned Lincoln Park (29-1) a trip to Hershey, Pa., to take on perennial Philadelphia powerhouse and defending PIAA champion Neumann-Goretti (26-3) at 8 p.m. Thursday in the state title game.
“I’m excited for the guys,” Leopards coach Mike Bariski said. “We thought it would be a war. [It was a] big court, so we spread them out a little bit. It really helps us, playing on big courts.”
A bona fide juggernaut in its own right, Lincoln Park will be making its sixth trip to the state finals in the past 13 seasons while attempting to win its third PIAA championship. The Leopards most recently reached the state title game in 2019, when they defeated Trinity, 79-72, to win the Class 3A championship. They lost to Neumann-Goretti in the Class 3A title game in 2017, 89-58.
“I want to soak this up and enjoy this,” Bariski said. “We’ve played them before. We’ll go out there and do our best.”
As has been the case all season long, Lincoln Park’s dazzling duo of Brandin “Beebah” Cummings and Meleek Thomas wowed the crowd with several highlight-reel moments, each taking turns leaving their imprint on the game with their own individual brilliance. Cummings finished with a game-high 25 points, none more spectacular than the two he received for a high-flying, posterizing dunk that would have made Vince Carter blush.
“My vantage point was crazy,” Thomas said about watching the Pitt recruit’s mesmerizing dunk. “It was a crazy moment. I ran over and started pointing. My adrenaline was rushing. It was wild.”
Cummings is no stranger to living above the rim, but the 6-3 junior even impressed himself with this one.
“I think that was the best dunk of my life,” he said.
Thomas finished with 20 points, deferring to Cummings for most of the first half before heating up late in the second quarter. His smooth, effortless game was on full display on a handful of nifty fadeaway jumpers after crossing up the defense.
“Lincoln Park has a great team. We wish them luck for Thursday. … It would be nice for a [Western Pennsylvania] team to win,” Uniontown coach Rob Kezmarsky said. “When they shoot like that, you’re in trouble.”
Cummings began the game with the hot hand, draining back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Leopards an early 9-5 lead. Another 3 from way beyond the arc silenced the Uniontown faithful who turned out in full force to support the Red Raiders, making it a 16-8 lead for Lincoln Park less than three minutes into the game. He then added a fourth 3-pointer later in the quarter to put the Leopards on top by a score of 27-14 heading into the second.
Lincoln Park never let up from there, stretching its lead on a pair of 3-pointers by junior guard Vinnie DePaula before Cummings delivered his monster dunk to make it 42-23. Sophomore guard Rashan Rusel added a three-point play and 3-pointer, then three free throws by Cummings just before the half made it a 53-29 lead for the Leopards going into the break.
Cummings wasn’t done yet, making a circus layup while drawing a foul to extend the lead to 67-40 late in the third quarter. He then activated the mercy rule with a layup to make it 79-49 with five minutes remaining, and Lincoln Park finally took its foot off the gas before cruising to the win. The Leopards now will carry a 17-game winning streak into their title clash against Neumann-Goretti, and they know that despite their dominance, they’ll likely be playing as underdogs in the eyes of many for the first time all season.
Just don’t expect them to flinch.
“To the public, they’re going to see us as underdogs, but we really believe that we are going to beat this team,” Cummings said. “We’re going to go into that game with the mindset that we’re going to win.”
All year long, many have pointed to Lincoln Park and Imani Christian as two of the best teams in the area, regardless of class — and both teams proved it again Monday night.
In a rematch of a one-sided WPIAL championship win for the Saints earlier this month, Imani drubbed Union once again to the tune of a 72-40 rout at North Allegheny. The Saints (22-6) jumped to a 17-point halftime lead and never looked back, clinching their first PIAA championship appearance in program history.
A blue-chip recruit with a bright future, 6-11 sophomore Alier Maluk delivered one of his best performances to date while playing on arguably the biggest stage yet of his young career. Maluk led five double-digit scorers for Imani with 20 points to go with 15 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, showcasing the star potential that has big-time college coaches salivating.
“It means a lot for me and my team to come this far,” Maluk said. “We put in a lot of work during the year.”
R.J. Sledge finished with 16 points to go with 13 from Dame Givner, 12 from Virgil Hall and 10 from Avery Wesley. The Saints now will move on to face District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley (26-2) in the PIAA Class 1A championship at 2 p.m. Thursday at Giant Center in Hershey.
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.