HERSHEY, Pa. — As the old saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.
Neumann-Goretti found that out the hard way on Thursday night.
One of the preeminent basketball factories in the country, the Saints (26-4) had won the past two PIAA Class 4A championships and nine of the last 13 dating back to their time in Class 3A. The Philadelphia powerhouse had never lost in nine previous trips to the state finals — until now.
Led by one of the WPIAL’s greatest duos ever in junior guard Brandin “Beebah” Cummings and sophomore guard Meleek Thomas, Lincoln Park emerged victorious over the nationally ranked Nuemann-Goretti dynasty after a scintillating back-and-forth battle, outlasting the Saints for a dramatic 62-58 win at Giant Center.
“Those guys have a lot of confidence in their ability. That’s why we’ll be watching them play one day at a high level,” Leopards coach Mike Bariski said. “Last time we were here and played [Neumann-Goretti], they beat the snot out of us. I remembered that.”
Cummings, a Pitt recruit, led Lincoln Park with 25 points while finishing 9 of 10 from the line — including a pair of free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining to put the finishing touches on the Leopards’ win.
“We battled so much all season,” Cummings said. “I had full trust in my guys. We’ve been in hard games, we’ve been in tough games this season. We just knew we had to play our game.
“We came in here wanting to make history, and we made history.”
Thomas started strong with 12 points in the first half, then struggled to find his shot for much of the second half — until his team needed him most. With the game tied, 58-58, and time winding down, Thomas found his way into the lane and converted a floater to give Lincoln Park a 60-58 lead with about 10 seconds to play. He finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals, cementing his status as one of the most coveted prospects in the country in the class of 2025.
“We knew coming into that game that we were going to take them down,” Thomas said. “Everybody was saying we were the underdogs. … For us to be their first loss at the state championship, it’s amazing.”
Baylor recruit Robert Wright was a one-man machine for Neumann-Goretti, finishing with 27 points to lead all scorers. He went toe-to-toe with Thomas and Cummings all night, with each taking turns sharing the spotlight and bringing the fans to their feet.
Wright nearly tied the game with a driving layup in the game’s final seconds, but the ball rolled harmlessly off the rim and Sultan Adewale’s putback attempt went in and out just before the buzzer. A foul called on the Saints in the ensuing scrum for the loose ball led to the game-clinching free throws by Cummings.
“They’re good players,” Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale said about Cummings and Thomas. “They made one more play than we did.”
DeAndre Moye, an under-the-radar yet ultra-valuable piece to the Leopards’ puzzle, finished with 7 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists while providing a reliable third option alongside Thomas and Cummings. The senior guard dished out several flashy assists while displaying an impressive handle and elite court vision.
“We’ve been talking about how much this means to us,” Moye said. “We knew it was going to be a hard game. So it was just, how bad did we want it? And we kept fighting.”
With the game tied at halftime, 28-28, Wright opened the third quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers before Cummings answered with two treys of his own to tie it back up. Another basket by Cummings put Lincoln Park back on top, then a deep 3-pointer by Moye gave the Leopards a 40-37 lead late in the third.
The fast-paced game only ramped up in intensity as the teams barreled toward a frenzied finish. A steal and layup in transition by Thomas gave Lincoln Park a 5-point cushion, but the lead quickly evaporated with a 7-0 run by Neumann-Goretti. A floater by Thomas then tied the game at 48-48 in what proved to be a sign of things to come.
With Lincoln Park behind by two, Cummings made a pair of free throws before throwing down a fastbreak dunk to put the Leopards back on top, 52-50. Wright answered with a steal and score to give the Saints a 55-54 lead before Thomas regained the lead for Lincoln Park with a layup of his own.
Wright and Cummings each traded two free throws, and with the game coming down to the wire, it became more and more evident that whichever team had the ball last was likely going to win. After calling a timeout with 20.4 seconds to play, Bariski entrusted Thomas with the ball, and the sophomore superstar delivered with the biggest shot of his life — to the surprise of absolutely no one.
“I knew it was going to be a tough game,” Thomas said. “That last play, I needed to seal the deal, and that’s what happened.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.