Lincoln Park fends off Highlands to advance to PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023 | 10:26 PM


The last time Lincoln Park and Highlands met, back in the WPIAL semifinals, the Leopards couldn’t stop hitting outside shots.

Their 23-point win was the largest margin of victory in the postseason so far for the recently crowned Class 4A district champs.

The game and matchup were much different Tuesday night, as Highlands and Lincoln Park went back and forth for the better part of three quarters. Twice the Leopards led by six points, but that was the largest lead of the night either way through three quarters at North Allegheny.

It wasn’t until star sophomore Meleek Thomas got going in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of his game-high 30 points, that Lincoln Park got its lead to double digits, ultimately winning 84-72 to advance to the PIAA quarterfinals Friday against Laurel Highlands, the WPIAL’s third-place finisher.

Lincoln Park (27-1) had its night capped by an emphatic jam by Thomas in the game’s final seconds and, with the win, ended Highlands’ season. The Rams finished 22-6.

The difference, Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said, was second-half rebounding.

“The change was we didn’t make 16 3s. We can do that, but you’re not going to do that every night. NBA teams don’t do that every night,” said Bariski. “We had to do some different things. We had to rebound better. We had to defend better. We talked about that at halftime. We needed to rebound better, and we did that.”

Highlands led 14-13 after one quarter in a somewhat cold-shooting first eight minutes. All five starters for the Rams scored in the quarter.

The Rams hung around in the second and weathered some storms, which only allowed Lincoln Park to lead by two at the break.

Bradyn Foster for Highlands and Brandin Cummings for the Leopoards put on a show in the second quarter. Foster scored 11 second-quarter points before finishing with 19, while Cummings, after not scoring in the first, scored 14 points in the second, a quarter that saw him knock down four 3-pointers.

Jordyn Tavarez scored seven of his 16 points in the third quarter, but the WPIAL champs outscored the Rams, 17-13, in the frame to take a six-point lead to the fourth before Thomas and the offenses took over in a wild, track meet-style fourth.

Countering Thomas’ 16-point quarter, Highlands senior Jimmy Kunst scored nine of his 17 points in the fourth.

“We changed our gameplan a little bit. We came out in zone the first time against them based off them not hitting a 3 against South Allegheny,” said Highlands coach Corey Dotchin. “We got buzzsawed by them a bit. Our guys were probably a little caught off-guard, but having a couple weeks to see that and digest it, I think the guys were a lot more focused tonight.”

Foster’s 19 points led the Rams, with Kunst (17), Tavarez (16) and Cam Reigard (12) joining the junior in double figures.

“All year, we’ve had four, five, six guys in double figures. We had four tonight, and it wasn’t enough,” said Dotchin. “But I’m proud of how we came back and fought after that big loss the first time against these guys.”

Deandre Moye chipped in 11 and Dorian McGhee 13 for the Leopards.

“We couldn’t lose (Kunst) and (Reigard). (Foster) made a difference in the first half,” said Bariski. “In the second half, we rebounded and played faster. We thought they got a little fatigued, and we were able to get up and down the court.”

Bariski highlighted the play of Moye and others not named Cummings or Thomas as underrated … and unselfish.

“(Moye) makes passes. He plays defense like nobody else, and he’s unselfish. Could he be somewhere else scoring 20 some points a game? Yeah,” said Bariski. “But he sacrifices what he needs to do to win the game. He’s the guy on this team. Those guys are great, but he makes us go.”

“At halftime, we knew that everyone we play, we’ve got a target on our back,” Moye said. “I said what I feel like I needed to as a leader and we perfected some things when we came back up. I do everything I can … the little things for us to win.”

Highlands will graduate Chandler Thimons, Kunst and more, as a class that broke in with a WPIAL championship moves on.

“It’s not just what they do on the court. They do all the little things,” Dotchin said. “Some of those guys are one-in-a-lifetime guys that walk through your door. They just did the right things, grew and learned, and it’s why our program has continued to have the success it has.”

The Leopards will get a crack at Laurel Highlands in the quarterfinals Friday at a site and time to be determined.

“They’ve got some guys and we have some guys,” Bariski said. “It should be a fun one.”

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