HERSHEY >> Lonnie Walker stayed at Reading for a reason.
Saturday night, as he lifted off in the lane, rose up and up into the air and powered down a one-handed dunk, he delivered on that promise. As a capacity crowd filling the Giant Center exploded, Walker came down, a personal dream and the dreams of an entire city almost in reach.
Just 81 seconds later, it was reality. Lonnie Walker and Reading were state champions.
The Red Knights, who have looked like a team of destiny the last two weeks, reached the top in a 64-60 win over Pine-Richland in the Class 6A final, ending the 2016-17 PIAA basketball season on the highest of notes.
“I feel on top of the world right now,” Walker said, surrounded by reporters and fans chanting his name in the stands behind him. “We brought it for them and for the city of Reading. What we did wasn’t even about Reading High basketball, it was about the city of Reading, the community, the schools, all the young kids we inspired and the motivation they put in. This is for them. This isn’t for us, this is for them.”
The game was befitting a state final. Pine-Richland, the WPIAL champion, came to play. With the house sold out and decked almost floor to rafter in black and red, the Rams never backed down and kept going at the Red Knights, unwilling to just hand them their moment.
Reading led 13-8 after the first quarter but Pine-Richland led 30-28 at the half thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by Greg Shulkosky.
“Well, they’re good,” Reading coach Rick Perez said. “There were some times where we broke it open, maybe up seven and took a step back. You’re in the state championship and everyone dreams of getting here. When they’re here, you have to know they’re going to swing heavy to that last buzzer. They’re an amazing program and an amazing coach and we were lucky to have been on the floor with them.”
Walker, the University of Miami recruit, could have gone anywhere to play, especially after falling short in the state tournament last year and the team graduating some key seniors. But he knew what he meant to the city and what leading the high school to the top would mean to all of Reading.
So he stayed.
He stayed and guys came home to play with him. One of them, Tyrone Nesby, was huge on Saturday and especially in the second half. Nesby scored 11 points, Jose Genao Batista had 14, making his mark in the first half and Walker led the way with 22.
“Loyalty, Family and Commitment, those are the values of our team,” Perez said. “He showed us what the Loyalty, Family and Commitment are. Four years and look, here you go Reading. That’s what he’s going to leave us with. He’s the man.”
Walker has dreamed about the moment, but there on the floor, in a grey Reading shirt, the reality was even better.
“It’s not even close,” Walker said. “You think about it, you do the little shot clock in your head, five, four, three, two, one, you shoot it and you make it. You’re inspired but I never thought I’d get this far. My freshman and sophomore years, I’d say we were going to states but I wouldn’t really mean it. I see how far we came and the inspiration, the motivation and determination we had, the hunger we had as a group was ridiculous.”
Walker’s dunk was the capping moment. It came off a run-out, him out alone in front of the pack, only the net and a crowd ready to erupt.
He stayed for a reason.
“It shows who we are and what we represent,” Walker said. “I’m just overjoyed and beyond proud.”
READING 13 15 19 17 – 64
PINE-RICHLAND 8 22 11 19 – 60
Reading: Lonnie Walker 9 4-4 22, Jose Geno Batista 4 4-4 14, Tyrone Nesby 3 3-4 11, Isiah Cook 3 1-2 9, Wesley Butler 2 1-1 6, Tymir Comfort 1 0-0 2. Nonscoring: Xavier Starks, Hector Dixon. Totals: 22 13-15 64
Pine-Richland: Jurkovec 1 0-3 14, Colosimo 4 0-0 11, Petcash 2 6-8 11, Rausch 3 2-2 10, Kristofic 4 0-0 8, Shulkosky 2 0-0 4, Luellen 1 0-0 2. Totals: 23 8-13 60
3-pointers: R- Batista 2, Nesby 2, Cook 2, Butler; PR – Colosimo 3, Rausch 2, Petcash