Lincoln Park takes care of South Allegheny in PIAA 1st-round win

Friday, March 10, 2023 | 10:49 PM

South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo had two keys to avoid for his team as it looked to upset WPIAL Class 4A champions Lincoln Park during Friday night’s state playoff opener: allowing second-chance opportunities and live-ball turnovers.

In the end, a barrage of second-chance points and forced turnovers allowed Lincoln Park to cruise into the second round of the PIAA bracket with an 80-63 victory that ended the Gladiators’ season.

“Their live-ball turnover leads right into their transition, and they score it well enough already, so giving them breakaway dunks and layups just gives them energy and makes things difficult,” DiCenzo said. “Their length and athleticism is really challenging. They’ve got two Power 5 guards on the perimeter, and that makes it challenging to run your offense.”

That duo of top recruit Maleek Thomas (31) and Pitt commit Brandin Cummings (21) continued to dominate as they combined for 52 points. Cummings was held under 10 points in South Allegheny’s loss to the Leopards in the WPIAL quarterfinals, but DiCenzo knew that would change tonight.

“All their accolades speak for themselves. They’re great players,” he said. “They’re gonna go on and play high-level college basketball, and they’re probably as good of a duo as I’ve ever coached against. The first time we played them, we got Cummings on an off night, and we did a good job to hold him under 10 points, but we knew that wasn’t going to be a reality again.

“I’m proud of our guys. We got it under 10 a few times, but we couldn’t get that key stop or that key basket.”

Bryce Epps, who leaves South Allegheny as the school’s all-time leading scorer, led the Gladiators (20-7) with 22 points in his final game of his career before heading to La Roche University.

“He’s meant so much to our program. We have a program because of him,” DiCenzo said. “The standard that he’s set for the rest of the kids has elevated not only him but everyone else around him, and he’s a once-in-a-while type guy. We’re hoping that we find one somewhere down the pipeline.

“What I’m most proud about is his growth as a kid and as a person. I remember him coming around as a middle school kid, and watching him grow from that to where he is now has been an honor. I know that he’s going to have success as he goes on to play college basketball.”

Lincoln Park (26-1) opened the contest by scoring the first eight points, and Thomas accounted for half of them. A timeout prompted a 5-0 run for the visitors, but the Leopards went right back and rattled off 12 straight points to open up a 20-5 lead before Michael Michalski and Jeston Beatty added five points to make it 20-10 after one.

Bryce and Cam Epps combined to cut the SA deficit to 22-17 after a few minutes in the second quarter, but Thomas and DeAndre Moye responded with six straight points. After a Michalski putback brought the tally to 28-19, the Leopards outscored the Gladiators 12-6 to end the half with a 40-25 advantage.

Thomas finished the first half with 16 and added 15 more in the second half as Cummings came on with 12 second-half points. The senior scored six points in a row that were canceled out by two 3-pointers from Cam Epps on back-to-back possessions. Thomas wouldn’t let that duo steal the show, though, as he connected on the next trifecta to bring Lincoln Park to a 51-31 lead.

Cummings closed the third quarter out with four more points as the victors took a healthy 59-43 advantage into the final quarter of play.

Thomas and Bryce Epps both scored 10 points in the final quarter as the Leopards eventually snatched an 80-63 victory.

Lincoln Park will face Highlands in the second round. The Leopards defeated Highlands, 87-64, in the district semifinals after they beat South Allegheny, 50-40, in the quarterfinals on their way to WPIAL gold.

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