'Canes roll into title game against Hampton
New Castle (77) Vs. Kiski (23)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
WEXFORD — It was a game waiting to happen.
The New Castle and Hampton high school boys basketball teams are playing for another WPIAL championship.
Last night, the nationally-ranked Red Hurricane punched its ticket to the district title tilt for a third straight year in convincing fashion, using a strong start and suffocating defense to cruise to a 77-23 WPIAL Class AAAA semifinal win over Kiski in front of a packed crowd at North Allegheny High.
The top-seeded ’Canes (25-0) are the two-time defending district champions. They will meet Hampton at 7 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne University’s Palumbo Center for the championship. New Castle has beaten the Talbots in the past two title games. The second-seeded Talbots, coached by former Westminster College standout Joe Lafko, pulled away late for a 61-53 semifinal win over North Allegheny last night.
“It’s special. It’s validation for hard work,” said fourth-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo of advancing to the championship game. “It’s validation because we have really good players who are fully committed to one another.”
The ’Canes are ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 2 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg. New Castle has won 45-straight games against WPIAL teams dating back to a 50-43 loss to Montour in the second round of the state playoffs in the 2011-2012 season. The ’Canes have won 81 of their last 83 games.
New Castle, which is ranked No. 38 in the USA Today poll, defeated Hampton (22-3) in a pair of Section 3 matchups, 58-42 and 66-55.
“We’re going to give two great days of effort and preparation to be ready to play Hampton,” Blundo said.
New Castle scored the game’s first seven points and pushed the buffer to 14-4.
“When you’re undefeated, I think getting out of the gate is important,” Blundo said. “Because if there is a level of doubt, you can increase that level of doubt by jumping on them early and I think that happened a bit tonight.”
The 13th-seeded Cavaliers rallied with five consecutive points to close to within 14-9. Anthony Richards tossed in a 3-pointer to cap the first-quarter scoring for a 17-9 lead after one.
“It’s always important to start well,” Richards said. “We want to come out and we want to bring it. We want to bring that energy.
“We want to bring that toughness. We really didn’t finish a lot of shots early on. But our energy was just unbelievable and that’s why it was a 50-point win.”
New Castle’s defense took over starting in the second quarter. Kiski (17-6) turned the ball over 29 times, including 12 in the second stanza.
“That’s our main priority. We know defense wins championships,” said ’Canes senior Malik Hooker. “Every game we play, we want to come out and just get stop after stop after stop. We know eventually defensive stops will turn into points. That’s kind of how we want it to be.”
Said Blundo of the defensive effort, “The defense was superb. It was as good as you can guard. Defensively, we were in the right places and playing with a ton of energy. We played with great passion and great communication defensively. That’s how you hold a team to 23 points. It was darn-near perfect.”
New Castle opened the second period on a 7-0 run for a 24-9 advantage to put the game away. Hooker, an Ohio State University football recruit, notched another highlight-reel moment with a steal and a one-handed jam with 2:23 to play in the second quarter for a 34-14 advantage.
Hooker intercepted an errant Kiski pass in the backcourt, drove right down the middle of the lane and slammed it home. The dunk brought thunderous cheers from the ’Canes’ faithful.
“It wasn’t just me. We all came out with high intensity,” Hooker said.
CLOSING IT OUT
New Castle put the game into mercy-rule mode in the third quarter. The ’Canes outscored the Cavaliers in the stanza, 27-3, for a 63-17 advantage. Jake McPhatter’s 3-pointer initiated the mercy rule with 1:53 left in the third and a 59-17 advantage.
“Every time we got together for a timeout and at the end of the quarter, we just looked at each other and we said ‘listen, our defense is going to get us where we want to go,’” Richards said. “At halftime, we said ‘two more quarters of great defense and we’ll be at the Palumbo. Right where we want to be.’ Our guys were just unbelievable tonight.”
Blundo played his reserves the entire fourth quarter and they won the stanza, 14-6.
While New Castle was playing in its third-straight district semifinal game, Kiski was in the district semifinals for just the third time in program history.
“I do think that the more times you play when the lights are on, the more experience you get and the more comfortable you are doing it,” Blundo said of the semifinal atmosphere. “I’m fortunate to have a lot of players who have played in front of 3,000 people on various occasions and in big games.”
TALLY IT UP
Hooker paced four ’Canes in double figures with 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting. He added eight steals and seven rebounds as well.
McPhatter added 12 markers and four steals. Twin brothers Drew Allen and Stew Allen chipped in 10 points apiece. Stew supplied nine rebounds and Drew delivered five. Richards handed out a game-high five assists to go with his nine points.
New Castle was a blistering 30 of 46 from the field, including 9 of 14 from behind the arc.
Mike Simmons, who poured in 37 points for the Cavaliers against Gateway in the quarterfinals, was held to a team-high 10 points last night.
Richards acknowledged the importance of going back to the Palumbo Center to play for another crown Saturday.
“It’s great. Three years in a row. My senior year, a chance to win the WPIAL championship. There’s nothing better than that,” he said. “There’s nothing better than being with your team, your boys that you’ve been working with your whole life. To get to this moment is what we’ve been working for and we’re finally here. We’ll see what happens Saturday.”
Said Hooker, “It’s just a great feeling. We all grew up with each other since like second or third grade. It was always a dream to play with the guys you grew up with. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
The winner of the WPIAL championship game plays the fifth-place team out of the district in the state playoffs, while the runner-up draws City League champ Allderdice. The state playoffs in Class AAAA open March 8.
(In Thursday’s print edition: Ron Poniewasz Jr. and Joe Sager have much more from the big semifinal win, including an interview with an emotional Jake McPhatter on his father’s horrific auto accident.)