By Matt Popchock
From the first tip-off in December to the last one at the A.J. Palumbo Center, Lincoln Park looked like the best boys’ team in Class A. After two unsuccessful journeys to The Bluff, the Leopards finally proved it.
Lincoln Park (22-4) used its awesome size to overpower feisty Cornell, 74-57, at Duquense University in Friday evening’s WPIAL Class A Final, its first since the charter school for performing arts was opened in 2006.
Its first-ever Division I scholar athlete, towering forward and Temple recruit Devontae Watson, powered the Leopards with 17 points, 15 boards, and nine blocks before fouling out on a questionable call with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
According to team sources, Watson enters the PIAA tournament with 982 career blocks, having already reached the 1,000 plateau in career points and rebounds. That unofficially ranks as the second-most career blocks in American high school history.
University of Kentucky men’s head coach John Callipari was on hand to watch his former mentor, Cornell head coach Bill Sacco, lead the Raiders (19-6) against one of the premier teams in the state he used to call home, but it was Lincoln Park senior guard Trey Hosack who delivered a performance that would evoke plaudits from any major college coach.
Hosack led the field with 27 points, finishing 10-of-15 from the floor, and never missed from inside the arc, save for three foul shots. He was absent from the Leopards’ championship game loss to Vincentian Academy a year ago, and judging by his play, you’d think he spent the past year preparing for this moment alone.
“He’s a money player, so we try to get him as many touches as we can,” head coach Mark Javens said. “But we feel we have five guys like that, and once they’re all clicking, we’re hard to stop.”
His steady shooting hand guided Lincoln Park to a 34-23 halftime advantage. Still, Cornell had no qualms with playing at the Leopards’ pace.
“This is a WPIAL championship game, and they’re there for a reason,” Javens said. “They’ve already upset two teams–if you want to call them upsets–so I’d image they’re going to do pretty good at states.”
But Lincoln Park kept that pace a little better, and the Raiders, who were limited to 37% shooting in the first half, and just 39% for the game, ultimately lost their poise against an unrelenting full-court press.
“They came out hard,” Watson said of their A-Sec. 1 rivals, “but we came out harder.”
“That’s exactly how we got through the regular season, and through the playoffs–by playing 32 minutes,” Hosack agreed. “It’s just like Coach J says, ‘LP 32.’”
Corey Mackey led the defeated with 18 points, making eight straight free throws in the second half, and seven in the final period. The disqualification of Watson gave Cornell a slim chance to claw back, but a third-chance putback by Jaylyn Cottrill and an immediate jumper off a steal by freshman guard Antonio Kellum effectively turned Class A’s bridesmaid into a bride once and for all.
“If we didn’t get back on defense the way we did, they’d cherry-pick us the whole game, and that wouldn’t have made for a fun day,” Watson said. “We knew we had to get back, get those hands up, and it helped.”
Not to inflate the college man’s ego, but Hosack had a different perspective on his team’s defensive effort.
“All they did was dribble right through our press. It was hard [to keep up with Cornell]…until they got to Devontae.”
Javens, for one, didn’t seem to mind seeing his gentle giant throw another impromptu block party.
“This is probably the biggest win in the school’s young history,” he said. “The last two didn’t feel too good, so we’ll take it.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)