PENN HILLS, Pa. — Three seniors, one junior and one freshman made up Laurel Highlands starting lineup when they knocked off the only remaining undefeated WPIAL Class-5A team in section play on Friday night on the road against Penn Hills.
With the Mustangs’ four veterans in the starting five, they still looked to the lone underclassman, 6-foot freshman Rodney Gallagher, whenever things started to look shaky.
Penn Hills went on their runs throughout the game, but the Mustangs never cared. As the Indians press caused havoc and caused a few turnovers, Gallagher huddled his team up, led them, and adapted, like all freshmen are supposed to do, right?
You rarely see someone in the ninth grade have the poise to be calm in those situations, let alone have the moxie to then turn around and make big play, after big play in what was perhaps Gallagher’s most important regular-season high school game to date.
Gallagher finished the game with a game-high 21 points.
But he didn’t score on wide open-spot up shots, or easy fast-break lay-ups, either. He hit a floater after breaking down two defenders with his dribble moves, and he made a turnaround 15-footer off the bounce with a defender in his grill – oh, and he also dished out eight assists to his teammates because he wanted to make winning plays.
“We knew we were one of the top teams in 5A,” Gallagher said. “We had a chip on our shoulder to come get this W.”
Gallagher and the Mustangs are currently 10-6 overall and 5-4 (third place) in Section 1 Class 5A. Laurel Highlands’ first meeting against first-place Penn Hills was a 73-71 double-overtime loss in their home building, and they didn’t want to feel what they felt after that game against the same team again.
Laurel Highlands jumped out on the Indians 13-6 on Friday, and Gallagher and his teammates looked like they were on a business trip. Rarely did they celebrate after big plays or overreact when a call didn’t go their way. They chipped away until the final buzzer. Then, they shook hands with Penn Hills and immediately sprinted to the locker room and let out all the screams that they had bottled up inside of them.
This win was significant, not only for the Mustangs’ confidence but for their playoff picture heading down the home stretch. They jumped from fourth place to third after their win and Albert Gallatin’s loss to McKeesport on Friday.
“We just have to keep winning the rest of our games to get a better seed,” Gallagher said. “If we keep performing like we are, I think we are going to make it a long way and make a long run in the playoffs.”
Even though Gallagher is just a freshman, major colleges are already tuned in. He currently has two Division-1 basketball scholarship offers (Illinois and Rhode Island), and even though he prefers hoops right now, Gallagher also picked up a Division-1 football offer this week from William & Mary.
Gallagher says local teams such as Pitt and West Virginia have been in contact with him this season, and the Panthers coaches hope to come to watch him in the playoffs in mid-February.
It’s well documented that Gallagher received a ton of the hype that is around him because of playing with Bronny James [LeBron’s oldest son] the last few summers on the same AAU team.
But instead of moving to a different state to play against top-tier high school teams from around the country, or taking his talents to a prep school was never really a thought for Gallagher. He wanted to stay home and try to do something special at Laurel Highlands.
He also ‘played up’ last summer in the 15U Adidas Gauntlet and felt like that experience has only made life as a freshman playing basketball in the WPIAL, not such a daunting task.
“That helped me a lot last year,” Gallagher said about AAU. “I played against bigger kids and much better competition. So, coming out here and playing the older kids, to me, is kind of easier because I already got the experience,”
Not only can the kid play, but he has the drive to be great.
“I’m just going to keep working and doing what I’m doing,” he said.
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He has some flaws, like any 15-year-old basketball player, but the big ones are out of his control right now. Gallagher is just 6-foot tall and weighs about 150 pounds. He’s hopeful for a growth spurt and has three and a half more years for that to happen, because it’s not hurting him at the high school level one bit.
Besides that, his forte is attacking the hoop. But he alluded to the fact that he is continuously working on becoming a more consistent shooter, even though on Friday his jumper looked just fine.
“Keep working on my three-ball,” Gallagher said on what he wants to improve on. “Hopefully, [I’ll] get taller and just keep working and see where I get after that.”
Gallagher has the unique ability to stay low to the ground on both ends of the floor. It seems like anymore; young players like to have more of a loose and upright handle. He uses his quickness well and can explode with the ball off of multiple dribble moves.
In the game against Penn Hills, he never took plays off on the defensive end. His on-ball defense is stellar and always is laser-focused on the ball. He used his quick feet and hands to poke multiple balls loose and had three steals. He plays defensive back and wide receiver for Laurel Highlands varsity football team, and it shows on the hardwood.
He likes creating his own shot and going one-on-one in the half-court, but when a double-team comes, he trusts in making the right basketball play.