Confident and now healthy, star freshman Meleek Thomas leads Lincoln Park past North Catholic

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Thursday, February 24, 2022 | 12:14 AM


Sharing the court with a couple of scorers bound for Division I colleges might make some freshmen timid. Not Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas, who waved for the basketball when the Leopards needed a fourth-quarter boost Wednesday night.

And without hesitation, they passed it to him.

Thomas missed much of this season with a foot and ankle injury, but he showed Wednesday why Pitt is already after him. The 6-foot-3 guard scored a game-high 26 points with 15 in the fourth quarter as No. 5 seed Lincoln Park defeated No. 4 North Catholic, 77-67, in a WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinal.

The ninth-grader showed no freshman nerves.

“Meleek is by far the best freshman in the state and I feel like he’s a top 10 freshman in the country,” said teammate L.A. Pratt, a Duquesne-bound senior. “He’s really special. He plays with maturity. He plays with confidence. You’d think he was a senior.”

Thomas said it helps him that there’s no selfishness among them.

“I’ve got the greatest teammates ever,” he said. “We talk to each other every single day. I know when it’s my time and they know when it’s their time.”

No doubt, this night was his time.

Lincoln Park (17-6) advanced to face section rival Quaker Valley (21-0) for the third time. A site and time will be announced later. The top-seeded Quakers won both regular-season matchups, 77-74 on Dec. 23 and 75-67 on Jan. 21, but Lincoln Park played the rematch without Thomas.

“I’m always excited to get another shot,” he said.

Against North Catholic, sophomore Brandin Cummings scored 17 points and Pratt had 15. Add a healthy Thomas to the scoring mix as the team’s third player with Division I offers, and the Leopards are hoping they’ll have a chance to repeat as WPIAL champions.

Thomas has offers from Pitt, St. John’s and UTEP.

“Now you’ve got a three-headed monster that you’ve got to watch out for,” Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said. “And then you’ve got DeAndre Moye there that people overlook sometimes. How do you match up with that man to man?”

That question troubled North Catholic (18-4) at times in the fourth quarter. The Trojans had reduced a 15-point first-half deficit to 54-51 in the fourth, but then Lincoln Park relied on its one-on-one advantages.

Thomas scored on consecutive possessions, making a 3-pointer and then a transition layup to lead 59-51. Calling for the ball, he quickly added two more driving layups, keeping Lincoln Park’s lead at eight points.

“They most likely have three of the best six or seven kids in the area on one team,” North Catholic coach Jim Rocco said. “You can’t take anything away from them. They’re immensely talented.”

Ben Tomer led North Catholic with 21 points, Andrew Maddalon scored 14, and Max Rottmann and Max Hurray each added 13. The Trojans fell behind 26-15 in the first quarter and spent three quarters climbing out of that hole.

With Tomer battling in the paint, turning offensive rebounds into put-back baskets, North Catholic cut Lincoln Park’s lead to 41-33 at half and 54-48 after three.

Lincoln Park’s lead was down to three points early in the fourth when North Catholic’s Matt Ellery opened the quarter with a 3-pointer. That’s when Thomas went to work against a matchup his team targeted, scoring Lincoln Park’s next nine points.

“Cummings absolutely gave him the ball,” Bariski said, “because that’s where we knew we wanted to go.”

Said Thomas: “To me, nobody can guard me, so I just went. I had to get a few buckets real quick.”

North Catholic rallied again with a runner by Maddalon, a steal and a transition layup by Hurray, cutting Lincoln Park’s lead to four points with about two minutes left, but couldn’t get any closer.

Lincoln Park held on with free throws. Thomas and Cummings each went 4 for 4 from the foul line in the fourth.

“We had a really weird first quarter and then we battled back,” Rocco said. “We cut it to four and had three chances at a bucket to cut it to two, and just didn’t finish the play.”

Thomas’ ability was never in doubt, but his health this winter was. He had a 34-point performance in late December when Lincoln Park was in Florida, but injured his ankle soon afterward. Thomas tried to return after missing only a couple of games, but his injured foot wasn’t ready, so he then sat out about 10 more.

He returned two weeks ago with a handful of games left on the schedule.

“He’s been hurt most of the year,” Bariski said, “but he’s a special talent.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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