HERSHEY – One middle-aged man, almost an hour after the PIAA Basketball 6A State Championship game ended—won by Reading 64-60 over Pine Richland, spotted from 20 rows up in the arena the Red Knights’ Lonnie Walker, the Miami-bound sensational player who took charge in the second half to score 22 points and who was still signing autographs and posing for pictures with young fans.
He spoke for the thousands from the Red Knight nation that had jammed and owned Hershey’s Giant Center with a record 9,531 crowd on Saturday night and for the countless more who over the years and years had thirsted for this moment.
“Thank you Lonnie,” he shouted with arms raised. “Thank you.”
The long, much-too-long wait is over for Reading. At last, the Red Knights, after 118 years of basketball, are state champions.
“We finally got that ring,” Walker said. “Finally brought that state chip to the City of Reading. I feel on top of the world right now.” See highlights and photos and hear more from Walker above.
And the view couldn’t be better.
The Red Knights, who finished the season 30-3, got it done in grand style, with an electrifying second half rally against Pine Richland, the WPIAL champions and a very good team from suburban Pittsburgh which finished the season 28-2.
The Red Knights won the second half after trailing 30-28 at halftime.
“We knew what we had to do,” said Walker. “We were the stronger team, faster team. We’re the better team. We started to bring it in the second half.”
The Red Knights grabbed the lead for good when Tyrone Nesby converted a Pine Richland turnover, one of 13 forced by in-your-face man-to-man pressure defense, to give them a 40-39 lead with 3:15 left in the third quarter.
Nesby scored all 11 of his points in a clutch, second-half performance.
Walker took it home from there, scoring eight of his 22 points in the fourth quarter.
The Red Knights built an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter but Pine Richland made one last charge to cut to the lead to 52-50 with 3:22 left in the game.
“They made the shots that were open,” said Walker. “Made the layups. Made the passes. That’s what kept them in the game.”
Pine Richland made 56 percent of its shots for the game, a red-hot 80 percent in the second quarter.
But Reading refused to let this state final get away like it did in 1973 when it looked like Stu Jackson and the Red Knights were about to dispatch General Braddock, only for them to lose a heartbreaker 63-62.
Guard Wesley Butler got a pivotal basket. He drove for a layup with a PR defender hanging on him, drew the foul and completed the three-point play to put the Red Knights up 55-52.
Then with 1:20 left, Walker, taking a long pass from Xavier Starks who rebounded a PR missed shot, finished the Rams on a breakaway dunk that ignited a roar in the Giant Center that rocked Chocolatetown and gave the Red Knights a 57-52 lead that, this time, held.
For Reading, Jose Genoa Batista scored 14 points, 12 of them in the first half.
Leading Pine Richland was Notre Dame quarterback recruit Phil Jurkovec who scored 14 points. Andrew Petcash and Sean Colosimo each had 11 points. Nolan Rausch scored 10.
Respected as a high school basketball power throughout generations—the Red Knights are claimed to have won the most games in Pennsylvania to go along with their 20 District 3 championships—Reading at last has its state championship, its first-ever.
This despite losing in the District 3 semifinals to Harrisburg. The resilient Red Knights rebounded to win five state playoff games, including back-to-back gritty wins over Plymouth-Whitemarsh and Archbishop Ryan in their backyard at Temple’s Liacouras Center.
“We’re a public school,” said Walker. “Philly schools have been dominating. We finally brought something home we can be proud about.”
Referencing past Reading legends like past greats Jackson and Donyell Marshall among a long list of others, who were in the building, and coaches like Pete Carill and Jim Gano, along with the thousands and thousands of fans who have stuck with the Red Knights through decades of success, only to come up short in March, coach Rick Perez understood all too well what this state championship meant.
“If I could take this medal and share it with everyone I would,” he said. “Look what we accomplished together. The game was about the kids. They knew what they had to do.”
And what they did was much more than win an important basketball game. They erased all those years of frustrating losses in the state tournament and they gave the community the boost in so many ways it hungered for.
“It was about the City of Reading,” said Walker, who now owns a spot beside the other legendary giants of Reading High sports. “About the community. About the schools. All the young kids. Inspired, motivation, everything that we put in. This was for them.”