PIAA BASKETBALL: Lincoln Ends Hazleton Area’s Season In OT Thriller
BETHLEHEM — Khalif Meares bounced the ball near midcourt, teasing Hazleton Area defenders as the packed house inside Joseph J. McIntyre Gymnasium fidgeted on its tiptoes and tried to muster yells from its already hoarsened voices.
Meares’ Abraham Lincoln team and the Cougars were locked at a 74-all stalemate late in overtime in a tense PIAA Class 6A boys basketball semifinal when the Philadelphia Public League Most Valuable Player decided to have some fun with the ball for about a minute.
“Our message to Meares was, ‘Just take care of the basketball, watch the five-second count and get to the rim. Don’t settle for a jump shot,’’’ Lincoln coach Al Brown said.
Finally, the senior guard made a deft move toward the basket with about 13 seconds left and floated in a teardrop from inside the lane. By the time it fell through the net, 10.5 seconds were showing on the scoreboard.
After a timeout, the Cougars had a chance to tie with a deuce or win with a triple, but Josh Samec’s last-second 3-point attempt clanked off the rim and fell harmlessly to the floor without enough time for a teammate to rebound as the buzzer sounded.
Final score: Lincoln 76, Hazleton Area 74.
“The guards and I just had to take our time,’’ said Meares, whose Railsplitters will face District 12 rival Roman Catholic in Wednesday’s state final at the Giant Center in Hershey.
“I kept thinking, ‘Don’t rush nothing because you make mistakes rushing things.’ I’m thinking in my head, ‘Just win the game.’’’
Meares’ heroics capped a gallant comeback by the District 12 champions, who trailed 64-58 after Samec made one of two free throws with 3:11 left in regulation.
Instead of wilting against a Hazleton Area team on a mission to reach its first state title game since 1993, the Railsplitters rallied.
Shikeir Morrison pulled Lincoln (25-6) within four on a putback, then calmly sank two free throws after a steal to make it 64-62 at the 2:47 mark.
The Cougars (26-2) then played their own version of keepaway for almost the next minute. That is, until Joey Grula connected with a cutting Jeff Planutis for a dunk that elicited a roar from the predominantly Hazleton Area crowd and nearly ripped the roof off the Freedom High School gym.
However, Morrison again answered by maneuvering his stocky 6-foot frame inside for an offensive rebound and cashed it into a bucket to close the gap back to two (66-64) with 1:42 left.
“We needed to close and we just weren’t able to close,’’ said Samec, who was one of four Cougars in double figures with 14 points. “They got by us too many times at the end of the game, and that’s what ended up killing us.’’
Following a Hazleton Area turnover, Lincoln’s Emeuel Charleston made his first basket of the afternoon count — a 3-pointer from the corner that gave the Railsplitters a 67-66 edge, their first lead since early in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars appeared to reclaim the lead on their next possession, but Jeff Planutis’ hoop was waved off after he was whistled for an offensive foul.
“One of those calls that could have gone either way,’’ Hazleton Area head coach Mike Joseph lamented afterward. “I thought we did a great job attacking their pressure. Unfortunately, some freebies didn’t go our way.”
Soon thereafter, the Cougars converted a Lincoln turnover into two Grula free throws and a 68-67 lead with 53.2 seconds remaining. But Meares answered with the go-ahead basket on another driving layup 10 seconds later.
Trailing in the fourth quarter for just the third time all season, Hazleton Area worked the ball inside to Da’Mir Faison, who was fouled. He calmly swished the first, but missed the second to keep the game tied at 69. However, Grula swooped in for the offensive rebound and the Cougars called timeout with 16.6 seconds left.
“We called a play that we execute all the time,’’ Joseph said. “It has two options to it ... a lob (to Faison) or a kickback to Josh for a (three). .. We were probably a half inch away from that being converted.’’
The aggressive Railsplitters intercepted the lob attempt and raced downcourt, but Hazleton Area point guard Ryan “Sparky’’ Wolk hustled back on defense to bat the ball away from Morrison on a layup attempt and the ball went out of boundswith only 1.3 seconds remaining.
Another Lincoln shot attempt was off the mark at the buzzer and the game went into overtime.
“We didn’t convert some things in the fourth quarter to give us a bigger lead ... but I’m not going to pick out any one thing of what could have been.’’
Charleston again came up big with his second triple to start the scoring in the extra session, and the Railsplitters never trailed from that point.
“Coach told me it’s a make or miss,’’ Charleston said. “I stayed aggressive and just let it go, that’s how I play. I had a lot of confidence.’’
The Cougars pulled even on a Samec triple with 1:16 left, before Meares put the game and outcome in his hands.
“To be in this environment felt like surreal,’’ Brown said. “We told our guys to be ready for the moment. There’s never going to be a moment that’s too big, so just go out there and play.’’
The Railsplitters jumped out to their biggest lead of the game (10-3) less than three minutes in, but Hazleton Area’s 17-2 run staked the Cougars to a 22-16 advantage after the first quarter. Planutis had 11 of his game-high 25 points in the quarter.
Later, Planutis’ steal and dunk gave Hazleton Area its largest lead (32-24) with 4:55 left before halftime and his baseline layup resulted in the 999th and 1000th points of his brilliant career in scarlet and silver.
Lincoln stayed aggressive, though, whittling its deficit Sahnei Day’s hoop tied it at 37 at halftime.
The lead then changed hands five times in the third quarter, with neither team able to extend its advantage above four.
With Hazleton Area down by four, Grula’s two free throws made it 53-51 to set the stage for a wild fourth quarter and overtime.
“There was a lot of things I ... we could have done differently,’’ Faison said. “We had too many turnovers, missed free throws. ... It sucks, but we can’t do anything about it. What happened, happened. It’s in the past now.’’
What happened with the Cougars this season was they captured their third consecutive Wyoming Valley Conference Division I championship, won their first District 2/4 Class 6A Subregional title since 2014 and made their deepest state tournament run since 1995.
“They took me on a ride like I’ve never been on before,’’ Joseph said. “It was the greatest season I’ve ever been involved in ... To be with this group of guys, all honor roll students for the most part, home-grown kids who came up through our program, I love each and every one of them. I couldn’t be prouder.
“We’ll be connected for a long, long time because they took Hazleton on a great ride.’’
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PIAA Class 6A Boys’ Semifinal At Joseph J. McIntyre Gymnasium Freedom H.S., Bethlehem
LINCOLN (76) — Meares 6 10-12 22, Morrison 6 5-10 17, Day 5 0-0 10, Charleston 2 0-0 6, Corbett 4 0-4 8, Randall 3 0-0 6, Obogo 0 0-0 0, Jefferson 0 0-0 0, Matos 0 0-0 0, Luckey 3 1-2 7. Totals 29 16-28 76.
HAZLETON AREA (74) — Samec 5 1-2 14, Vayda 0 0-0 0, Wolk 0 0-0 0, Planutis 11 3-4 25, Grula 5 8-13 18, Otero 0 0-0 0, Shamany 0 0-0 0, Faison 3 11-14 17. Totals 24 23-33 74.
Lincoln (25-6) 16 21 16 16 7 — 76 HA (26-2) 22 15 14 18 5 — 74
3-point FGs: Charleston 2, Samec 3