By Matt Popchock
The cliche “tale of two halves” definitely applied to Monday’s matchup of boys’ Class A powers at historic Midland Gymnasium.
To be more precise, it was a tale of one quarter.
Down by as many as 16 points in the second half, MSA Sports No. 1 Rochester found life in the form of its defense and used fast-break offense to key a 14-0 fourth-quarter run and shock Post-Gazette No. 1 Lincoln Park 60-49.
The visiting Rams (4-0, 12-3) stole not just the game, but also the Section 1 lead from the Leopards (4-1, 11-3), who became the first of the two to lose a game within its own classification this season.
Rochester senior guard and team scoring leader E.J. Blackwell topped them all with 25 points, but he saved his best work for the game’s most pivotal moments, which included forcing turnovers and scoring 11 in the final period, six of them in the paint.
That quarter saw the Rams outscore Lincoln Park 29-7 and, amazingly, hold the third-ranked offense in Class A without a field goal, despite spending much of the first three chasing it.
“E.J. kept us in the game when the rest of our shots just weren’t going down,” senior forward Giovanni Ellis said. “We had to be patient, which was a big difference from last year’s team.”
A major key was the way the defense shut down Lincoln Park senior guard Chaquille Pratt, who led the Leopards with 22 points but managed just one field goal in the second half, the team’s lone three-pointer.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Blackwell said. “They made theirs just by playing their game, so we knew we just had to play our game, and keep our composure.”
Blackwell accounted for seven of Rochester’s 10 first-quarter points, which included the first of his three three-pointers. However, Lincoln Park junior forward Devontae Watson, as always, used his tree-like stature to control the defensive glass, and rebounding combined with scoring balance allowed the Leopards to take a 12-10 edge into the second.
Watson would finish with 12 points, but not surprisingly, it was Pratt, Class A’s second-leading scorer at 26.9 points per game, who really whipped the Midland faithful into a frenzy and put the team on his back. Pratt attacked the basket and everything in its path, racking up 11 to help Lincoln Park race out to a 27-18 lead at the half.
The Leopards’ defense seemed to have the Rams right where they wanted them. It gave Lincoln Park’s offense more momentum and seemed to demoralize the visitors, though they made a couple shots toward the end of the quarter to keep the game from getting completely out of hand.
Rochester cut the deficit to 47-40 as its zone defense quietly contained Pratt and gobbled up missed shots by the Leopards. Suddenly, it was the Rams ratcheting up the intensity and the hosts trying in desperation to catch up.
“We knew we couldn’t stay in our half-court, man-to-man defense,” Ellis said. “We had to pressure the ball, because they don’t have the ball-handlers that we do.”
A full-court press helped Rochester swing that momentum permanently in its favor, which led to easy buckets in transition. Ellis poured in six of his 14 points down the stretch, while Devon Glass scored all seven of his in the final frame, with Glass and Spencer Hauser hitting threes that brought Rochester’s boisterous student section to its feet and stunned all the rest.
“After the first half I told myself, just keep shooting and stay confident,” Blackwell said.
“This is a tough environment, and this court has a lot of history. But we didn’t let that get to us, and we just stuck to what we had to do.”
(UPDATE: Rochester defeated Union Wednesday night to take a full one-game lead in A-Sec. 1 over idle Lincoln Park.)
(Click here to relive any or all of the action from our Game of the Week, thanks to my friends at Rubino Productions.)
For continuing coverage of WPIAL basketball, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!