Bishop Carroll in underdog role

For an entire season, the Bishop Carroll boys basketball team has taken the floor as the favorite.

Tonight, the Huskies will see what life looks like on the other side.

Although it’s 28-0 and has gone through the schedule with few serious challenges, Carroll heads into tonight’s PIAA Class A semifinal game at Hempfield High School in Greensburg perhaps universally regarded as a prohibitive underdog to Lincoln Park, the WPIAL champion.

Lincoln Park boasts a 28-1 record, a starting lineup with three players taller than 6-foot-6 and six postseason wins by at least 35 points – the other was by 17.

“They are maybe the best team some colleges could face,” Monessen coach Joe Salvino told his hometown newspaper, the Valley Independent, after the Leopards beat his Greyhounds by 44 points in the District 7 final.

Husky coach Cosie Aliquo, though, has been braced for this obstacle for some time.

“Everyone believes that we can’t go there and win,” Aliquo said. “I told our guys go there, battle and enjoy it. Whatever happens happens. I know my guys will give 100 percent, and that’s all I can ask of them.”

Lincoln Park’s starting lineup includes two players who average more than 20 points per game: Sophomore swingman Maverick Rowan already is committed to Pitt, while 6-foot-9 senior center Elijah Minnie is uncommitted but looking at several schools in major conferences like Virginia Tech, Memphis and Kansas State.

Minnie scored 42 points and pulled down 20 rebounds last year when Lincoln Park ended Bishop Carroll’s playoff run, 86-84, in a dramatic state quarterfinal clash.

“They’ve got the height. They’ve got all the guys that are going to Division I schools,” Aliquo said of the Leopards. “That’s a tough school. Lincoln Park’s good. There’s no doubt about it. But we’re 28-0, so we’ve got to be pretty good ourselves.”

In fact, last year’s season-closer against Lincoln Park might have had a lot to do with how well Carroll has performed this season. A big underdog in that game, too, Carroll looked it when it trailed by 20 midway through the second quarter.

However, the Huskies pulled it together in the second half and actually led by five before falling. Scott Ranck scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half, but his 90-foot desperation heave at the buzzer that would have won the game just missed. Brandon Martinazzi led BC with 28 points that night, while Marcus Lee netted 16.

“When we first found out that we were matched up with them [last year], I don’t think our players realized they could beat them. When I started watching film, I just tried to convince those guys that we could go there and win,” Aliquo said. “We had to battle back. I think, at the end of the third quarter, they realized we could stay with them if we played our game.”

That game also was a 2013-14 season-shaper for Lincoln Park, too, according to athletic director/assistant coach Mike Bariski. After surviving Carroll, the Leopards were upset by Johnsonburg of District 9 in the very next round.

“We’re a much better defensive team than we were at this time last year,” Bariski said. “We also have a true point guard now. We didn’t have that last year. We addressed the need at point guard and we have gotten better on defense because of what happened to us last year.”

Lincoln Park has yet to win a state championship in basketball, but the school and its basketball program has come under fire from those that say it has an unfair advantage. Lincoln Park is a charter school located in Midland along the Ohio border, a town with a rich basketball tradition but whose public school closed in 1985. Lincoln Park can attract students from any school and, unlike parochial schools, whose involvement in the PIAA championship hunt also is criticized, no tuition needs to be paid: Minnie, for example, is from Monessen but plays for Lincoln Park on the tax dollars from his home district.

“The Catholic schools have to love us. That’s what I’ve always said. I’m a Catholic. In Philadelphia, I know the Catholic League loves the charter schools because it takes all the pressure off them. It’s the same here.” Bariski joked. “But it transcends sports. It’s about school of choice. It’s about the choice parents can make for their children [taking the courses they want to take].

“We know we’re doing everything right. We do it by the letter of the law. Kids come to our place because we have a great school.”

And, as Aliquo admits, a tremendous basketball team.

“For us to advance,” Aliquo said, “I think we have to play a perfect game.”