PHILADELPHIA >> When Reading’s Lonnie Walker swiped the basketball from a fellow Division I signee on back-to-back possessions and turned it into a 3-pointer and a thunderous dunk, it turned Tuesday’s PIAA Class 6A boys’ semifinal in its ear.
Trailing by 11 just moments earlier, Walker singlehandedly sparked what became a monstrous 21-0 rally at the Liacouras Center, and the Red Knights parlayed it into a 57-51 triumph over shell-shocked Archbishop Ryan. Reading (29-3 overall) advances to the program’s first state title game in 44 years.
“We were 15-15 my freshman year, so to make it to the state championship game is ridiculous,” said Walker, a 6-foot-5 senior star. “You don’t see this often with a public school.”
The third-seed from District 3, the Knights will face District 7 champion Pine Richland at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Giant Center in Hershey. Pine Richland topped Carlisle, 65-60, in the other semifinal.
“I don’t know if I can put it into words,” said Reading head coach Rick Perez. “It’s humbling at its purest sense. Just to see all of the smiles from the kids and the people of our city. It’s something we’ve desired for so long.”
Bound for the University of Miami (Fla.), Walker scored 15 points in a row during the pivotal surge sandwiched around the intermission, and Archbishop Ryan (25-6 overall) never recovered. With his future college coach, Jim Larranga, in attendance, Walker poured in a game-high 35 points.
“We know that Lonnie is our horse and he said, ‘come on my back, we are going to Hershey,’” Perez said.
“I say it was his best game because it was his most courageous. He made sure it wasn’t just about him, that everybody was in the right places on defense and offensively there was nothing that was going to stop him.
“You could have put 10 defenders on the floor and he was still going to get to the basket.”
Matched up much of the game defensively with Ryan’s senior standout, Izaiah Brockington, Walker was unable to tip the scales his way until late in the first half. He had three steals and scored 11 points as Reading scored the final 13 in the half to take a 29-27 lead into the break.
“It came down to who wanted it more,” Walker said. “After the 3-pointer and the dunk, I got into my zone, and once that happens, my play goes to a whole other level.
“I wanted it.”
And once Reading wrestled away the momentum – in front of a large and boisterous partisan crowd – it seemed to drain all of the confidence from the Raiders, third seed from District 12. The Knights then took control by scoring the first six points in the third quarter.
“They kind of stunned us with the 13-0 run,” said Archbishop Ryan head coach Joe Zeglinski. “It was devastating.
“The crowd for Reading was unbelievable and it got us a little out of whack. We threw the ball all over the gym. I tried to get them calmed down, but once they got rolling and Lonnie Walker started feeling it, he took over.”
The Raiders connected on just one field goal in the first 14 minutes of the second half, and by the time Latvian Matiss Kulackovskis (15 points) finally ended the drought with a 3-pointer with 1:52 remaining, Ryan trailed 49-41.
“We played a little on our heels,” Zeglinski said. “We weren’t attacking like we usually do. We kind of got real stagnant in the third quarter against their zone.”
Walker helped close it out with a couple free throws and an exclamation point dunk in the final two minutes.
“Lonnie just saw one thing: playing on Saturday. And he just took over the game,” Perez said.
“(Walker) reminds me of Usain Bolt,” Larranaga added. “When he gets into the open court and he just flies to the basket. He has speed, quickness and jumping ability, but what separates him from other players is his skills.
“He can handle the ball, he can shoot the 3 and he makes his free throws. He’s not just a special player but a special individual.”
Wesley Butler added in 10 points for Reading. Brockington (an NJIT signee) scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half for Ryan, and Fred Taylor chipped in six points and seven blocks.
Reading 57, Archbishop Ryan 51
READING – Starks 1 0-0 2; Butler 4 2-4 10; Walker 12 6-6 35; Nesby 1 0-2 2; Genao 0 3-6 3; Cook 2 0-1 5; Totals 20 11-19 57.
ARCH. RYAN – Bryant 2 4-5 8; Palantino 3 0-0 8; Brockington 7 2-4 16; Kulackovskis 4 2-4 15; Taylor 2 2-2 6.
Reading 8 21 11 17 – 57
Arch. Ryan 17 10 6 18 – 51
Three-pointers: Walker 3, Cook, Palantino 2, Kulackovskis 3.