Lady ’Canes win second straight WPIAL title
New Castle (66) Vs. Hopewell (61)
By RON PONIEWASZ JR.
PITTSBURGH — A dynasty was born Saturday.
The New Castle High girls basketball team conquered top-seeded Hopewell and overcame a 19-point deficit in posting a 66-61 WPIAL Class AAA championship-game victory at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center.
The Lady ’Canes clinched their second consecutive championship and fourth in the past seven seasons with the come-from-behind win. They dropped both regular season matchups to the Lady Vikings by a combined three points.
“I’m so happy for the kids; they really came together and put a great effort together to get the win,” first-year New Castle coach Jason Rankin said.
New Castle (21-3) will play Saturday against Tuesday’s play-in winner between Mercyhurst Prep and Punxsutawney. The first-round matchup will be at 5 p.m. Saturday at Ambridge.
The Lady Vikings (25-1) were the lone undefeated playoff team in the WPIAL, regardless of gender or classification. Hopewell will meet Bellefonte, the District 6 runner-up, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Ambridge.
Kaylynn Waters netted a game- and career-high 33 points for the Lady ’Canes. She recorded eight of the team’s 11 points in overtime.
“I knew I had to drive more and shoot,” Waters said. “I did that and I stepped up big.”
Waters scored the game-winning basket on a runner that she banked in with 40 seconds remaining in the extra session for a 63-61 buffer. She drained two foul shots with 12.7 seconds left to give New Castle its first two-possession lead.
“That runner was her most crucial shot,” Rankin said. “I think she was a little further out than she wanted to be and she banked it in.”
A 5-foot-7 sophomore guard, Waters had a chance to win the game in regulation, but her buzzer-beating field goal was just off the mark. She dribbled the ball around the Lady Vikings’ defense, waiting for the perfect time to make her move. Waters drove in and put up about a 12-footer that hit the front of the rim and bounced off.
“That last shot she missed in regulation was perfect, everything except for maybe six inches,” Rankin said. “She did exactly what I said she needed to do. She went hard to the left, jump-stopped, ball-faked, blew right by her man and I thought the ball was in.”
Rankin called timeout to set up the play in regulation with 9.2 seconds left.
“Coach said to give Kaylynn the ball, run four low and I just played one-on-one with it,” Waters said. “I didn’t want to go to the basket with eight seconds left because they could have got the ball back.
“I got nervous when I ball-faked, I thought the time would run out. I put it up and I just missed.”
Though Waters missed the shot, she kept herself in the game mentally and then helped secure the championship for New Castle.
“I told myself I should have made that shot,” Waters said. “I said to myself, ‘we have four minutes left and I want to be a champion’; I stuck with it.”
Rankin remarked on Waters’ mental toughness and maturity.
“She knew that wasn’t the time to get down on herself,” Rankin said. “She apologized to the kids in the huddle. I told her, ‘you’re putting us on your back. You missed a great shot in the championship. If that goes in, it’s a fairy tale.’ ”
Waters scored 28 points in the two regular-season matchups.
“If you look at the prior box scores from our games, she really elevated her game in the championship,” Lady Vikings coach Jeff Homziak said. “You have to give her credit, she stepped up big.”
The early stages of the game gave no indication that a fantastic finish was in store. Hopewell opened the game on a 16-4 run and held a 20-10 lead after one quarter. Paige Alviani netted 10 of her 18 points in the first quarter, nine of which came on a trio of 3- pointers.
“My kids were focused coming out of the gate,” Homziak said. “They knew what they needed to do and Paige’s shots were wide-open looks.”
Alviani converted just two more field goals the rest of the way, both of which came from inside the arc.
“Alviani got some looks early and she was able to knock down shots,” Rankin said. “I was just thinking at some point in time she’s got to miss. I think she got too comfortable shooting the 3; she didn’t look to penetrate later in the game and that hurts you.”
Hopewell continued the onslaught in the second quarter. The Lady Vikings opened the frame on an 11-2 run to take their biggest lead at 31-12 with 4:38 left.
“I was happy it was just the second quarter,” Rankin said with a laugh. “We still had time. I thought we just can’t play any worse. I wanted to press more in the second quarter, but I just thought we weren’t locating enough, we weren’t getting back.
“I was surprised our execution was so bad, we just didn’t step up enough to slow down their execution.”
The 19-point deficit was enough to discourage any New Castle player.
“All I thought at the time was we were going to lose,” said New Castle junior forward Delvona Dennis. “Then I didn’t think negatively, I just knew if we played hard we could overcome it.”
The Lady ’Canes raced to the locker room on the heels of an 11-4 margin to get to 35-23 at the break.
“I thought that run gave us some confidence at the half,” Rankin said. “You can score a ton of points and do a ton of good things. But if you do one or two bad things, your confidence goes out the window. Consequently, if you do a couple of good things, your confidence picks up. We picked up some confidence right there.
“Once we made that little run, I challenged them. I told them ‘don’t come out unless you’re going to give maximum effort. When we win this game, it’s going to make it that much sweeter because we worked so hard to do it.’ ”
The Lady ’Canes’ JaNia McPhatter was in foul trouble in the first half. She picked up two fouls in the game’s first 4:58, and was hit with her third just 52 seconds in the second period.
“They were calling it a little tight on us, but I had to play through it,” McPhatter said.
New Castle used a 1-2-2 halfcourt trap to open the third quarter and it worked. The Lady ’Canes put together an 8-0 run to close to 35-31 on a Waters bucket with 6:01 to play in the period.
Hopewell came out sluggish in the third quarter, committing two turnovers in the first 47 seconds.
“We knew they would come out ready in the second half,” Homziak said. “Defense got New Castle going, and those early turnovers didn’t help us.
“We haven’t worked too much against that type of defense. We tried to throw passes over our head instead of bounce passes.”
DOWN THE STRETCH
New Castle’s Christina Talbert tied the game for the first time at 41 on a basket after a Lady Vikings turnover with 2:22 to go in the third quarter. Following a Hopewell basket, Waters gave the Lady ’Canes their first lead at 44-43 with 58 seconds left in the stanza.
“I knew we could get back in it,” Waters said. “We needed to keep chipping away and we did that.”
Talbert tossed in 14 markers for the Lady ’Canes.
Elise Farris, who netted a team-high 24 points for Hopewell, converted a three-point play with 43.9 seconds to go in the third quarter for a 46-44 margin. McPhatter played throughout the third quarter without another foul, until the latter stages. She picked up her fourth with 15.6 seconds to play in the third.
“It was tough to be as careful as I had to be,” McPhatter said. “Especially in a championship game, you have to really watch what happens every step of the way.”
Said Rankin, “I was concerned when she got in foul trouble, she started thinking too much. I thought she was a little bit tired at the end of the third quarter. But I also thought we could get 15 more seconds from her without getting her fourth foul.”
The Lady ’Canes played from behind nearly the entire fourth quarter. Hopewell was in the bonus just 27 seconds into the final stanza. The Lady Vikings opened a 53-47 buffer with 4:48 to play on a Samantha Fisher basket.
But Waters wouldn’t let New Castle’s title hopes fade. She scored six of the team’s next eight points for a 55-53 lead with 58 seconds to play.
During the run, LaShauna Brothers fouled out with 1:54 to go. Brothers checked out with 13 markers. When she was whistled for her fifth foul, Brothers knelt down and shed tears of disappointment.
“I kind of gambled a lot, and it just looked like they were looking for me to foul out,” Brothers said. “I was saying this can’t be happening. If we lose, I’m probably going to take most of the blame for it. I thought I’m a starter and I can’t be out there helping my teammates.”