West Xtra: In a rare close game, Lincoln Park rises to the challenge, wins state title

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HERSHEY, Pa. -- For the Lincoln Park boys' basketball team, the situation had an uncomfortably unfamiliar feel to it.

In a season defined by success and oftentimes outright domination against overmatched opponents, the Leopards looked flustered and out of rhythm in the second quarter of their PIAA Class A championship game against Math, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia.

After defeating Class A opponents by an average of 42.6 points per game this season, Lincoln Park was staring at a 31-15 deficit against the Mighty Elephants after more than 11 minutes into the game.

From that moment, though, everything changed. The Leopards' potent-yet-struggling offense awoke, their defense tightened up against a talented MCS team and about 19 minutes later, with 3:37 remaining in the game, they ended up tying the score.

What came of that comeback was ultimately a state championship, the first in the program's history and though the final score, 70-66, wasn't overwhelming like so many of its others, Lincoln Park's win was a fitting cap to an incredibly successful season.

"If we win by one point or if we win by 40 points, it's still a win," sophomore guard/forward Maverick Rowan said. "That's all that matters."

Although the result was all that truly counted to Lincoln Park players and coaches, the comeback was particularly impressive, largely because it came from a team that faced little to no apparent adversity during the season.

Prior to that game, each of the Leopards' 29 victories had been decided by at least 10 points. With so many blowouts on their resume, it was fair to wonder how they would respond when faced with a sizeable deficit.

When that moment came, the team didn't panic.

"I've got to give my kids all the credit in the world," Lincoln Park coach Mark Javens said. "They never stopped and they never quit. It's been like that all year long."

The state championship brought a close to what was the most successful season in the history of the charter school in Midland.

The Leopards finished 30-1, with the lone loss coming by eight points to eventual PIAA Class AAAA champion New Castle, which finished the season a perfect 31-0. In that run, they were also able to capture the school's second WPIAL championship in the past three seasons and its first state championship.

With a Pitt commit in Rowan and two others -- forward Elijah Minnie and guard/forward Ryan Skovranko -- who are expected to play at the Division I level, Lincoln Park was almost always the more talented team when it took the court. Between that and its status as a charter school, the Leopards have been open to criticism, especially because they play against the smallest schools -- enrollment-wise -- in the area.

Javens, however, doesn't see that as a reason to devalue his team's accomplishment.

"It's so difficult to get here," he said after the state championship. "No matter what classification -- grade school, junior high, high school, junior college, college, NBA -- to win a championship is very difficult."

Heading into next season, it's reasonable to expect that success to continue. Minnie and Skovranko are both set to graduate, but Rowan -- the team's leading scorer at 26.3 points per game -- returns, as do starters Renell Cummings and Antonio Kellem.

For those leaving, it will be difficult, even though departure came with a PIAA championship. Still, there's solace for them in knowing that the program is in what they see as good hands.

"I love coach Javens to death," Minnie said. "I almost look at him like a father figure, especially out of basketball and in basketball.

"He treats you so well. Anything we ask for, he's always there to help us. Me and him always had that bond, even before I started playing. As soon as I got to Lincoln Park, me and 'Coach J' clicked and I think that's how it is for everyone."

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