MIDLAND – Inexplicably, Lincoln Park put Peyton Mele on the free-throw line throughout Monday’s PIAA Class 4A Final Four contest. And Hickory High’s senior sharpshooter was only too happy to oblige the Leopards’ largesse.
Mele’s 18-for-22 marksmanship – part of a career-best 38-point performance – hoisted the Hornets to the PIAA championship game, as they outlasted Lincoln Park, 68-61.
Hickory (23-3) will meet Allentown Central Catholic – a 46-43 winner over Middletown – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Hershey’s Giant Center for the commonwealth crown.
“We kept foulin’ the wrong guy. Every, single timeout, ‘Foul somebody else,’ but they kept foulin’ (number) zero,” lamented Lincoln Park Head Coach Mike Bariski.
“He was ‘electric.’ He showed why he’s gonna be a great college basketball player,” gushed Hickory Head Coach Chris Mele regarding his eldest son.
“Incredible!” Mele’s classmate, Connor Evans praised. “That dude’s one of the best in PA, and it’s so awesome to play with him ‘cause when everyone plays defense on him, I get open looks.”
“It feels phenomenal! I’m so proud for my seniors. You saw them step up at the end,” mentor Mele marvelled. “Every one of ‘em.
“Fantastic game! We left it all on the floor. ... We wanted every fifty-fifty ball. My kids battled, they’re ‘warriors.’ We’re goin’ to Hershey, baby!
“We were easily a ten-point underdog. You kiddin’ me? Easily an underdog,” mentor Mele maintained, later breathlessly adding, “It was a total team effort. I’m at a loss for words ‘cause I can’t believe that we’re goin’”
In addition to his sin-stripe sharpshooting Mele made 8 of 13 floor shots, including 4 from beyond the arc. Amazingly, Mele admitted,
“I’ve been struggling. My teammates have been pickin’ me up in practice – even in practice I’ve been missin’ shots – and I know they’ve got all the confidence in the world in me. I just came out and shot the ball well, and we’re goin’ to Hershey,” Mele mused.
Mele had help. Hickory hit 30 of 42 freebies, including 16 of 17 during the decisive 4th frame. Evans iced the win by sinking 4 freebies in the final 16 seconds. Conversely, WPIAL champion Lincoln Park posted 21-for-31 accuracy from the sin stripe, including 10 of 15 during the final 8 minutes.
Each team had a pair of players DQ’d on personals, most notably Leopards’ leading scorer Dakari Bradford. He drew 3 whistles with 3:19 remaining in the 1st frame and never was a factor, finishing with 2 points before fouling out with 4:58 remaining.
“That was a killer for us,” lamented Bariski. “He’s our best player, and he’s out of the game. The game was extremely physical – fouls everywhere – unfortunately, he happened to be the guy to pick up three early, and that kind’ve took us out of our rhythm.
“You score twenty-one points in the first half, you’re not beatin’ anybody that way,” Bariski continued, later adding, “If there were too many fouls called it was our fault. It’s our fault. (The Hornets) played harder than us. It’s very simple. It’s very, very simple.”
Except for an early deadlock at deuce, it was a wire-to-wire win for Hickory: 17-8 at the quarter, 29-21 by the break, and 46-35 through 3 periods.
Twenty ticks into the final frame Mele made both ends of a 1-and-1 bonus free-throw opportunity, handing Hickory a 48-35 edge. However, the Leopards pounced, coercing 11 fourth-quarter Hornets’ turnovers.
When frosh Brandon Cummings got to the glass for a score with 47 seconds remaining Lincoln Park pulled within 1 possession (62-59). Cummings collected a team-high 21 points.
However Mele made a pair of freebies at the 1:36, 1:13 and 34-second junctures, while Evans added 2 at the 16- and 7-second marks.
“It was an ‘eternity,’” mentor Mele admitted regarding the final frame. “But we made foul shots at the end, and that’s what you have to do. Connor made some great, big foul shots at the end.”
Evans ended with a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double, and said, “Its an incredible feeling! We felt like we should’ve been there (Hershey) last year; obviously with COVID, we couldn’t. So it feels great to go this year.
“We’ve been here before and we believe in ourselves. We’ve got confidence in ourselves that we can do it,” Evans added. “That’s the way I want to go out (playing for a state championship) – hopefully with a ‘W’ So, yeah, let’s go get it done!”
“It’s an amazing feeling, and there’s nothing like that,” commented Matt Cannone. “Win or lose, we’ve had a great season, but I’m going there (Hershey) to win, and I think everybody’s behind us, the whole Mercer County is behind us, and I think we can get it done.”
Also for Lincoln Park (19-6), Elias Bishop (13) and Ali Brown (12) scored in double-digits and Joseph Scott snared 6 rebounds. The Leopards ended 19 for 47 from the floor and committed 11 miscues. Hickory outrebounded Lincoln Park, 39-27.
“We’re about speed and defense, but we didn’t think we could put that in (double-team traps) any earlier, to have it work. We were gonna do it in the third quarter, but I wanted to hold off,” Bariski related. “We couldn’t get over that hump ... I wanted to get us to three (point deficit) to throw that in, but when we were down thirteen I had to do it, I was forced to. We got a bunch of turnovers, we got there. But we kept foulin’ the wrong guy.”
Hickory hit just 17 of 46 field-goal attempts. Complementing Mele and Evans, Joey Fazzone finished with 9 points and he and Jackson Pryts split a dozen rebounds, while Cannone contributed 6 assists. Hickory had 18 turnovers, and while Mele admitted those must be cleaned up, he observed – before he was wrapped up in his father’s bear hug,
“This is what we wanted last year and we got it this year, so we’re thankful. It’s amazing! Best feeling in the world! Best dad in the world! I wouldn’t want to share it with anybody else,” Peyton Mele concluded.
PIAA CLASS 4A SEMIFINALS
HICKORY 17 12 17 22 68
LINC. PARK 8 13 14 26 61
HICKORY –– P.Mele 8-18-22-38, Cannone 1-0-2-2, Evans 5-5-7-15, Pryts 1-2-5-4, Fazzone 2-5-6-9, T.Mele 0-0-0-0, Enoch 0-0-0-0, Boal 0-0-0-0, Hudson 0-0-0-0, Djakovic 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: P.Mele 4. Totals: 17-30-42-68.
LINCOLN PARK –– Dak. Bradford 1-0-0-2, Pratt 2-3-4-7, Cummings 7-5-9-21, Brown 4-4-5-12, Scott 2-2-4-6, Bishop 3-7-9-13, Reddix 0-0-0-0, Daq. Bradford 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: Cummings 2. Totals: 19-21-31-61.