Foul trouble dooms Lincoln Park in PIAA semifinal loss to Hickory

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Monday, March 22, 2021 | 10:17 PM


Twenty-eight times Lincoln Park was whistled for a foul Monday night, yet it wasn’t so much how they fouled but rather who.

Hickory senior Peyton Mele went 12 for 13 from the line in the second half and scored a game-high 38 points as the District 10 champion defeated host Lincoln Park, 68-61, in a PIAA Class 4A semifinal. The WPIAL champion Leopards rallied late, cutting a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to three but couldn’t take the lead.

A 6-foot-3 guard and Pitt-Johnstown recruit, Mele went 7 for 7 on free throws in the fourth, including a key pair with 34 seconds left. The Leopards didn’t want to foul Mele but at times couldn’t avoid him.

“I said, ‘Foul this guy or foul this guy but don’t foul zero,’” Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said. “And they fouled zero three times in a row.”

Both Mele and his father, Hickory coach Chris Mele, said this was his best game of the year. He did a little bit of everything for the Hornets, making four 3-pointers and also scoring in the paint.

Twice Mele was fouled shooting 3s.

Hershey’s Kisses rained down from the stands in the Midland gym, but it wasn’t the home fans throwing them. Hickory (24-3) advanced to face Allentown Central Catholic in the state final Thursday night at Giant Center.

“Since my freshman year, we’ve been trying to get to this place,” Peyton Mele said. “We’ve been trying to get to Hershey.”

The state championship appearance is Hickory’s first since 1961. A year ago, both Hickory and Lincoln Park were alive in the state quarterfinals when the PIAA shut down the tournament as covid-19 cases grew.

“We had what we thought maybe was the team last year,” Chris Mele said, “and we got cut short.”

WPIAL champion Lincoln Park (19-6) had three players foul out Monday, including senior Dakari Bradford, who sat for much of the game after drawing two fouls in the first quarter and three before halftime. He fouled out with nearly 5 minutes left in the fourth.

“When Bradford had three fouls early, that was a killer in the first half,” said Bariski, who’d intended to have Bradford defend Mele but couldn’t.

Combined, Hickory went 30 for 42 from the foul line. Mele converted 18 of his 22.

“I never thought it would be that crazy in the number of fouls called,” Bariski said. “Never. Three great officials. It’s not their fault, we fouled. Sometimes we did. Sometimes we didn’t.”

But the whistles weren’t one-sided. Hickory was called for 24 fouls and two players fouled out. Bariski compared the intensity to a Lincoln Park vs. Aliquippa game, a physical rivalry known for drawing dozens of fouls.

“It was a tough game to officiate,” Hickory’s Chris Mele said. “There was a lot of pushing, a lot of shoving. Both teams were physical.”

Freshman Brandin Cummings led Lincoln Park with 21 points before fouling out in the final seconds. Senior Elias Bishop scored 13 points, and junior Ali Brown had 12.

Lincoln Park went 21 for 31 from the foul line.

The Leopards fell behind by double-digits in the first quarter and spent the rest of the game trying to catch up. They trailed 17-8 after one quarter, 29-21 at half and 48-35 less than 1 minute into the fourth. Hickory built its lead with rebounding, solid defense and a knack for finding loose balls.

“I think you saw how we can play defense and how our kids go after 50/50 balls,” Chris Mele said. “We just really wanted it tonight. I think we wanted it a little bit more actually.”

Said Bariski: “They out-worked us and they out-rebounded us.”

Peyton Mele had his own 7-0 run that started late in the third quarter and stretched into the fourth. Hickory led 48-35 when he made two free throws early in the fourth.

Trailing by 13 points, Lincoln Park upped its pressure and used turnovers to mount a late rally. Bariski said he wanted to press sooner but couldn’t because of the team’s foul trouble. Hickory’s lead was down to 64-61 after Bishop scored on a layup with 20 seconds left.

But Lincoln Park didn’t score again, and Hickory’s Connor Evans went 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final 12 seconds. Evans finished with 15 points.

Lincoln Park was trying to reach the state finals for the third time in five years and the sixth overall. The Leopards return four of five starters next season, but that doesn’t make this loss any easier for the players, Bariski said.

“My heart just goes out for them,” he said. “I hurt for them. You don’t get these opportunities all the time. People think, ‘It’s Lincoln Park, they’re going to be there again and again and again.’ It’s hard work.”

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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