’Canes top Erie Prep, reach state Final Four
New Castle (80) Vs. Erie Prep (70)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
EDINBORO — The New Castle High boys basketball team feeds off its defense.
Saturday, the team had a big meal in the second quarter.
The ’Canes forced seven of Erie Cathedral Prep’s 16 turnovers in the pivotal period, rallying for an 80-70 win in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals in front of an overflow crowd at McComb Fieldhouse on the campus of Edinboro University. There wasn’t an empty seat in the gym and fans were so crammed into rows that they were spilling into the aisles.
“It was a gutty performance by my guys,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “It was two teams playing really hard. That’s a lot of points in a game.
“We just worked extremely hard to win this basketball game. I thought we got most of the loose balls, most of the 50-50 balls.”
New Castle (29-0) will meet Lower Merion (28-3), a suburban Philadelphia school, at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Williamsport High School in the PIAA semifinals. Chester will battle St. Joseph’s Prep in the other semifinal. A win tomorrow would give the ’Canes their first 30-win season since the 2001-2002 season, which ended with a loss to Uniontown in the state semifinals. It’s New Castle’s first trip to the Final Four since that season as well.
The ’Canes, ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 4 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, are gunning for their first state championship. The Aces, who knocked off Harrisburg, 63-62, Saturday to reach the semifinals, are ranked No. 2 in the state.
New Castle’s effort on the defensive end led to a 28-12 scoring outburst in the second quarter. It was the only quarter the ’Canes won, but it was enough to propel them to the semifinals.
“The intensity was great,” Blundo said. “Our guys were ready to play, and their guys were too. It was a great basketball game.
“That second quarter, we got good looks and we knocked them down. That’s what it comes down to. The team that shot it better, was probably going to win this game.”
The Ramblers (23-3), who were bidding for their second straight trip to the state semifinals, outscored the ’Canes in the other three periods, 58-52.
“One of the big things throughout the whole year is they always have a stretch where they just turn you over; they play quicker than you want to play,” Erie Cathedral Prep coach Mark Majewski said. “That was the turning point of the game.
“We won three of the four quarters. But the one we lost, we lost pretty bad. They made us make mistakes in that second quarter and they knocked shots down every time.”
The teams combined for 42 first-quarter points and Erie Cathedral Prep held a 22-20 margin after the frame.
“We really didn’t get them going as fast as we wanted to in the first quarter,” Blundo said. “We were able to pick that up in the second quarter.
“They made three or four great shots in the first quarter. Sixteen footers are tough shots to make, and they made them. I thought if we just kept contesting those shots that over a course of time, it would be to our advantage.”
The Ramblers held their largest lead of the game in the first quarter at 7-2. The teams traded leads five times with a tie in the stanza.
Conor Colpoys made two foul shots 34 seconds into the second quarter for a 24-20 Erie Cathedral Prep lead. But Shawn Anderson ignited one of those signature New Castle runs, this time a 13-2 run, for a 33-26 lead with 5:14 to go in the half.
Anderson, a senior and Navy recruit, scored the first field goal of the spurt and his two foul shots gave the ’Canes a 30-24 margin, prompting Majewski to burn a timeout.
Anderson netted 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting with five rebounds and three assists.
“Shawn was just fabulous. He may be, if not the best, the most intense competitor I’ve been around,” Blundo said. “He enjoys the most competitive and toughest games more than anything. He always plays his best basketball against the best talent.
“He’s one of those guys that rises to the occasion in the biggest moments.”
Malik Hooker drained a 3-pointer with 6:55 to play in the half to give New Castle the lead for good at 25-24.
New Castle pushed the lead to double figures at 42-32 with 1:21 to go in the half.
“We just brought tons of energy on defense,” ’Canes junior guard Anthony Richards said. “We got a couple of turnovers and we made a couple of big 3s. Once we get a run going, we say we need more energy. We just want to keep going.”
And New Castle did keep going, moving the lead to 48-34 at the half. Brandon Domenick caught a pass from Malik Hooker in the waning seconds and launched a 3 that drew all net. Domenick’s teammates rushed to greet him and celebrate and they raced off the floor to thunderous cheers from their legion of fans who made the 80-minute trek to Edinboro.
“I just felt that when I was driving that they were crashing on me and I had confidence that Brandon, (Antonio Rudolph), Shawn and Anthony was going to knock down shots,” Hooker said. “I’m going to just play my game and I’m going to make plays for everybody else.
“We brought our intensity out there in the second quarter and it caused us to go higher and higher.”
Majewski recognized the importance of Domenick’s trifecta at the end of the half. Domenick tossed in 14 markers.
“Every chance that we had a little momentum, they took it away from us,” Majewski said. “I thought we withstood a great shot that they gave us. I thought we’d be down 11, but then, bang. We’re down 14 and we couldn’t overcome it.”
Hooker paced a balanced ’Canes attack with 23 points.
“I performed good because I think I was very excited about this game,” Hooker said. “We knew they were going to bring a big crowd and we were going to bring a big crowd. We love playing in front of an atmosphere like this. That’s probably when we’re at the highest point of our game.”
PUTTING IT AWAY
New Castle held a double-figure lead most of the third quarter, holding a pair of 14-point cushions at 50-36 and 59-45.
Richards, who finished with 15 points, buried his fourth and final 3-pointer with 2:59 to go in the third quarter for that 59-45 lead. But he picked up his fourth foul on Erie Cathedral Prep’s next trip down the floor with 2:47 to go and sat out the rest of the quarter.
“It never helps going to the bench,” Richards said. “You’re playing in a game like this, you don’t want to be on the bench. It hurt because I just made two (3-pointers) in a row. When I get going, I want to stay in and keep going.”
Five straight Ramblers points cut the lead to 59-50 with 33 seconds left in the quarter.
That’s when Anderson struck another deadly blow to Erie Cathedral Prep. Anderson penetrated, pulled up and drained a jumper with two seconds to go for a 61-50 lead, killing the Ramblers’ momentum again.
“They’re momentum killers,” Anderson said of the buzzer beater. “To be playing so hard like they were, and then it’s like a punch in the face. Those are big shots. Tonight, they happened to go in.”
Said Blundo of the buzzer beaters by Domenick and Anderson, “That’s what winners do. These guys believe in themselves so much. When you work really hard and put so much time in, you’re not thinking about it when you shoot it. You’re just shooting it.”
The Ramblers never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Sheldon Zablotny tossed in a game-best 24 points for the Ramblers. He told his team going to the bench with 3:29 left that the game isn’t over, with the ’Canes up 65-55. But New Castle’s fans roared a chant of ‘undefeated’ throughout the media timeout. The ’Canes put the game away for good soon after.