I hadn’t covered a WPIAL basketball game in almost six years but after hearing so much about Micah Mason the past two seasons, felt obligated to check out the Highlands senior point guard in person before his record-setting high school basketball career was over.
Mason put on an impressive performance in the season finale at Hampton (19-3, 14-0), nearly leading the Golden Rams (8-14, 6-8) to an upset victory before falling, 79-73, in overtime. My Saturday column, There’s No Denying Micah Mason, focused on the junk defenses the WPIAL’s leading scorer faces almost every game and how he’s overcome them, as well as an illness.
Beforehand, Hampton coach Joe Lafko told me the key was to use a full-court press against Highlands, which forced Mason to work the length of the court and to give up the ball once he crossed midcourt and met double-team traps near the 3-point line. It worked, to an extent.
Mason spent some of the game as a decoy, drawing the defense in before finding open teammates. He still finished with a game-high 32 points, making 12 of 24 from the field, including 5 of 12 from 3-point range, and 3 of 4 free throws. Incredible as it sounds, he was very unselfish with the ball.
“His shooting percentage is probably down this year because he’s probably taking more shots,” Highlands coach Shawn Bennis said. “He was 5 of 12 from 3 last game (before Hampton). We’re sitting there saying, ‘That’s bad for him.’ But it’s 40 percent with two guys in his face.”
The sad part of the story is that Mason doesn’t have a strong supporting cast in his senior season. He’s the only returning starter after Trey Duncan transferred to Valley and sophomore Kashiun McMillan to Carrick and junior center Aquelay Frison didn’t play for personal reasons. Highlands’ second-leading scorer, Mason’s best friend Gage Clark, hadn’t played since eighth grade. Only one other player, 6-4 senior Alan Crise, is taller than 6-2.
“We had a good team last year and (opponents) still played junk defenses but my teammates helped them get out of it,” Mason said. “I try to stay positive and not worry about it. It is what it is, and I can’t change anything.”
One of his most impressive plays came when Mason snared a rebound and took off on a fast break, dribbling behind his back to slip past one defender and then using a crossover to split a double team and gliding in for a right-handed layup that gave Highlands a 22-21 lead in the second quarter.
Mason was at his best in the third quarter, when he scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting with two 3s, including one on a steal where he pulled up from 22 feet as the defenders were chasing after him and had their backs turned.
Frustrated in the fourth, Mason missed 4 of 5 shots and the front end of a one-on-one free throw before making the tying basket on a driving layup with 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation. And he missed all three shots from the field in overtime, scoring only on two free throws.
Overall, I was impressed with Mason, a 6-foot-2, 179-pounder who has signed with Drake, mostly because he doesn’t have a great supporting cast. Although he’s known as a 3-point ace — he broke T.J. McConnell’s WPIAL record for career 3-pointers last Tuesday – I see Mason projecting as a point guard in college. He has a nice handle, is quick off the dribble and made some pretty passes, including a couple of no-looks to wide-open teammates.
Obviously, Mason needs to get stronger. The POTS wiped out his summer and fall conditioning and affects his stamina. He appears to pace himself at times, but never came out of the game. One thing that impresses me, and was pointed out by others, is that Mason isn’t a superior athlete. It’s obvious that he has spent countless hours working on his game, especially his shooting. His range extends to 28 feet (no kidding) and his shot is pure. He needs to work on elevating on his jumper, which looks more like a set shot at the moment, to get it off under pressure against bigger players in college.
“I think he’s been so great for the WPIAL because he’s a self-made kid,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “He’s taken everything you would want and poured it into the game. The results are obvious. He has such a belief in himself. He’s awful fun to watch, even if you’re a coach, because he’s so dedicated to it.”
One thing Carmody pointed out about Mason is that his career started the year the WPIAL reduced its regular season from 24 to 22 games, which means Mason has had eight less games in his career than his predecessors. And he’s only had one extended playoff run, when Highlands reached the WPIAL Class AAA final and PIAA second round his freshman year. Mason has played in four postseason games since then.
Even so, Mason ranks 16th in WPIAL history with 2,224 career points. The players directly ahead of him, ranging from Beaver Falls’ Lance Jeter to Connellsville’s James Hairston, Pine-Richland’s Allan MacQuarrie, Blackhawk’s Dante Calabria and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham and Yough’s Ben McCauley, all had WPIAL finals runs in their junior or senior seasons.
Given another 10 games, Mason would have easily cracked the WPIAL’s top 10 career scoring leaders. Regardless, he has a remarkable high school career. Here’s hoping it continues long enough to see him play again.