Defensive-focused Lincoln Park beats Hampton to repeat as WPIAL champs

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Thursday, February 29, 2024 | 10:32 PM


The WPIAL knows Meleek Thomas best as an elite scorer for the league’s highest-scoring team, a combination that brought Lincoln Park to Petersen Events Center on Thursday night.

But his offensive-minded Leopards reached the finals ready to play defense, with Thomas leading that effort, too. A 6-foot-4 guard considered one of the top juniors in the country, Thomas scored a game-high 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, made five steals and finished his night with a high-flying dunk as No. 1 Lincoln Park defeated No. 2 Hampton, 66-51, in the WPIAL Class 4A final.

Thomas also helped limit Hampton’s top scorer to six points.

What turned the high-scoring Leopards into determined defenders? Thomas said he and his teammates simply have taken more pride in their defense as the games got bigger.

“The more you get into the season, the harder the games become,” he said. “The atmospheres become bigger. Everything just gets more serious, more intense. If I would have just lollygagged around … on the defensive end, if we got comfortable, it could have been a whole different game.”

The WPIAL title was the second in a row and seventh overall for Lincoln Park (23-3), all since 2012.

Pitt-bound senior Brandin Cummings scored 16 points on his future college court, and Mikey Crawford and Rhaki Lum added 12 points each. But for a team known for offense, this title was won largely on the other end.

Lincoln Park had averaged 80 points per game this season, but against one of the stingiest defense in WPIAL 4A, the Leopards were willing to join in.

“Sometimes when you see them on film, you don’t appreciate the athleticism,” Hampton coach Joe Lafko said. “Tonight, they were really, really after it defensively.”

Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said three words were written largest in his team’s locker room: “Pressure, pressure, pressure.” Hampton had 14 turnovers and the Leopards converted them into 16 points.

“That’s what we worked on all week,” Bariski said. “We can play defense when we want to play defense, and they stepped up tonight.”

That included Thomas, who was matched against Hampton senior Peter Kramer, a Lehigh recruit and 20-point scorer entering the playoffs. Lincoln Park held Kramer to six points on a 3-for-17 shooting night, thanks in part to Thomas’ defense.

“He’s athletic and lengthy and that kind of bothered me tonight,” said Kramer, who went 0 for 7 from 3-point range. “I know my shot wasn’t falling, so that didn’t help either.”

Thomas, who insisted the defensive win was a team effort, said: “I don’t want to give myself too much credit.”

Hampton (22-4) hung around into the second half, at times pulling within five points of the defending WPIAL and PIAA champions, but never led after the first quarter. Liam Mignogna scored a team-high 20 points and Alex Nyilas had 16.

“You talk about putting Meleek up on Kramer and not letting him breathe, but the big thing is the other two guys,” Bariski said. “We said, ‘Have him have no place to throw the ball.’ … We played great defense all the way around him.”

Lincoln Park trailed 12-9 late in the first quarter before grabbing the lead with an 11-0 run that stretched into the second quarter. Second-chance points were a key for the Leopards, who had 10 offensive rebounds before halftime.

The Leopards led 14-12 after the first quarter and never trailed again, pushing their lead to 33-23 by halftime and 47-37 after three.

“There were some missed opportunities, some turnovers, some missed layups, some lapses on defense,” Kramer said. “We didn’t play anywhere near where we’re capable of.”

As defending champions with arguably the top scoring tandem in the WPIAL, Lincoln Park entered the postseason as one of the heaviest favorites. The Leopards were the top-ranked team in 4A all season.

“I feel like we were supposed to be here, and we felt all year that we were going to be here,” Cummings said. “We expected to win a championship.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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