’Canes heartbroken after loss to Lower Merion
Lower Merion (67) Vs. New Castle (63)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
WILLIAMSPORT — The scene was so unfamiliar for the New Castle High boys basketball team.
Heads were down. Eyes were watering with tears. And ultimately it meant one thing — the Red Hurricane came up just a little bit short on the scoreboard.
Lower Merion’s size led to doubling up New Castle on the glass en route to a 67-63 PIAA Class AAAA semifinal defeat at Williamsport High School.
The heartbreaking loss ends the ’Canes’ season one win from a berth in the state championship game. New Castle (29-1), 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, last appeared in the state semifinals in 2002 and hasn’t competed for the crown since 1998.
“The guys played hard,” said an emotional New Castle coach Ralph Blundo. “They gave everything you expect this team to give. I don’t care if it’s a fall-league game, a summer-league game or the western final, if you come to watch the New Castle basketball team play, you will see the same effort, focus and intensity night after night.”
One final New Castle field goal attempt rolled off the rim as time expired and the Aces faithful stormed the floor to celebrate with their team as members of the ’Canes stood by and watched.
“We had a great year. I’m so blessed to be a part of something so special,” New Castle senior and Navy recruit Shawn Anderson said fighting back tears.
The ’Canes are 56-2 over the last two seasons.
A TALL TASK
The Aces (29-3), ranked second in the state boasting starters that stand at 6-foot-8, 6-7 and 6-3, recorded a 26-13 margin on the glass.
“We might be small, but we’ve outrebounded every team but two this year. I just don’t think we could afford to get dominated on the boards and we did. My guys were working and scratching and clawing. Their length and size was just too much at times. It hurts. It hurts terribly and I hurt for them. It’s a special group.
“You have to send four guys to the offensive glass at all times.”
Lower Merion moves on to meet Chester (28-3), a 62-53 victor over St. Joseph’s Prep, for the state title at 8 p.m. Saturday at Hershey’s GIANT Center. It’s a rematch of last year’s championship game, won by Chester, 59-33.
Aces coach Gregg Downer knew his team was facing a tough test.
“First of all, I’ve been around a long time, and I was unbelievably impressed by New Castle,” he said. “We were watching them on film and we were in complete awe of their unity and their skills.”
The ’Canes held a 28-27 lead late in the half. But JaQuan Johnson made a basket as time expired to send Lower Merion off the floor with a 29-28 halftime advantage, capping a 14-2 run. The Aces never trailed the rest of the way.
Lower Merion scored the first six points of the second half, prompting Blundo to call his first timeout just 68 seconds into the third period. The Aces pushed the lead to 41-30 and 43-32, both their largest leads of the game to that point.
“If we would have went up by one, it would have been a whole different ballgame out there,” New Castle junior Malik Hooker said. “We would have came out with more energy than we did. We’re a team that comes out of the lockerroom with energy and that’s not what happened tonight.
“We came out and we were sluggish and the score went up to about seven. They kept control of the game from there and there was nothing we could pretty much do about it. We started slacking and making turnovers we usually don’t make. When we made our turnovers, they were going off it.”
New Castle turned it over just 10 times — six of which came in the first half — compared to 21 for the Aces. The ’Canes were active all night defensively, forcing steals, deflecting passes and diving for loose balls.
“We played at a high intensity the entire game,” Blundo said. “There were times we were able to turn them over and then there were other times that they made us pay.”
New Castle’s Anthony Richards picked up his fourth foul with 2:45 to play in the third and he had to sit out the rest of the quarter with the team down, 43-32. Antonio Rudolph had three first-half fouls, while Hooker and Brandon Domenick battled foul trouble as well.
“Foul trouble changes things, but that’s part of adversity and we had to deal with it,” Blundo said. “Part of it was just how hard we had to fight to get position.”
The ’Canes quickly dealt with that foul trouble, erasing the 11-point deficit and knotting the count at 43 with 1:12 to play in the third on a putback by Rudolph prompting a thunderous roar from New Castle’s supporters.
The ’Canes had a chance to take the lead, but couldn’t convert a field goal inside and Lower Merion raced the other way. B.J. Johnson made two foul shots with 49.2 seconds remaining and Raheem Hall cashed in a field goal off the glass with 12 seconds to go for a 47-43 buffer entering the fourth.
B.J. Johnson, a Syracuse University recruit, notched a game-best 22 points.
“I never felt like the game was out of reach because I know what’s inside my guys and I know how hard they’re going to work and continue to fight,” Blundo said. “They did and they made some plays and had a couple of timely hoops by Shawn and Malik; it was a great game.
“When I look back and reflect on the whole thing, I’m going to see a boatload of empty possessions that we just don’t typically have. Some forced by Lower Merion and some where we maybe lost our composure just enough by taking some shots that we wouldn’t typically take.”
The Aces slowly pulled away in the fourth, grabbing another 11-point advantage, this time at 63-52 with 2:08 to play. However, New Castle had one more spirited run in them.
Domenick drained a 3-pointer and was fouled on the play with 1:58 left. He nailed the foul shot to cut the margin to 63-56. The ’Canes made a defensive stop, but Hooker wasn’t able to convert a field goal with 1:31 left and the Aces corralled the rebound.
Lower Merion split four foul shots in the last minute and New Castle never got any closer than the final tally.
“To their credit, they made free throws down the stretch and that’s really why they won the game,” Blundo said. “We kept coming, but they just kept keeping us at bay with really good free-throw shooting.”
New Castle started strong, building a 7-2 first-quarter lead and settling for a 15-11 count after the period. Hooker’s rim-rocking one-handed dunk with six minutes to go in the half, which appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter as the fifth-ranked play of the night, lifted the ’Canes to a 21-11 buffer.
New Castle eventually took its biggest lead of the game at 26-15 with 4:23 remaining in the half.
“I kind of think it was that they didn’t think we could play with them,” Hooker said of the 11-point lead. “We came out and jumped on them early, and then they figured out that we weren’t going to lay down for them.”
Lower Merion displayed its knack for comebacks in the game against Harrisburg in the quarterfinals.
“I watched them erase an eight-point deficit against Harrisburg with only four minutes to go. Two minutes later it was a tie ballgame,” Blundo said. “I thought Lower Merion played much, much harder after the first quarter.
“Toward the end of the first quarter and after the first quarter I thought they picked up their intensity. One of the things they made us do was get into our offense 30 feet away. We really want to get into it 25-feet away. For us, that really makes a difference.”
Hooker paced the ’Canes with 19 points and Anderson was next with 17. They both netted nine of their markers in the second half.