’Canes win third straight WPIAL title!
New Castle (55) Vs. Hampton (49)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
PITTSBURGH — One for the other thumb.
The New Castle High boys basketball team captured the program’s 10th WPIAL championship Saturday night — this time, in come-from-behind fashion.
The Red Hurricane erased an early 11-point deficit, battling back and conquering Hampton, 55-49, in the Class AAAA championship clash in front of a packed crowd at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center.
“It just feels great,” said fourth-year ’Canes coach Ralph Blundo. “To see my guys so happy and to accomplish something that was really important to them, that’s where I take my most pleasure.”
New Castle has won WPIAL championships in 1927, 1936, 1982, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The ’Canes capped an unprecedented run through the district with their latest championship, marking three-straight undefeated campaigns through the WPIAL championship. New Castle is 78-0 in the past three seasons spanning the regular season and district play.
Last year, New Castle became the first program in more than 100 years of the WPIAL to win two consecutive titles an undefeated mark.
“I’d love to put it into some type of perspective, but I can’t,” Blundo said. “I played sports my whole life. I know how hard it is to win 78 consecutive WPIAL games.
“All I can say is this is an extraordinary, unique, I don’t know what other type of adjective you can use, type of kids who have the ability to do things outside of ability and talent that most young kids can’t do. They’re able to focus on whatever they’re doing at the time. That’s the only way it can happen.”
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 46-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, who are ranked No. 38 in the latest USA Today poll, have won 82 of their last 84 games as well.
Hampton came in ranked No. 2 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Post-Gazette and No. 4 in the state. The Talbots, coached by former Westminster College standout Joe Lafko, have lost their last eight matchups against New Castle.
“It's certainly frustrating,” Lafko said. “That entire locker room is frustrated. “They know what it tastes like to have silver (medals) again. New Castle just made a few more plays.”
The latest title defense got off to a rocky start for the ’Canes. Hampton raced out to a 13-2 lead just 4:03 into the contest behind an intense 1-3-1 defense. David Huber netted six of those 13 markers during the stretch for the Talbots. But the ’Canes clamped down on Huber the rest of the way, allowing just a third-quarter 3-pointer for the junior guard the rest of the way.
Despite the deficit, New Castle’s players didn’t show signs of panic or desperation. The ’Canes continued to play their signature brand of basketball.
“We thought it was highly likely that they might come out in a 1-3-1,” Blundo said. “It was more of us not executing and the result was a couple of turnovers.
“It was something we had to adjust to and get things going the other way. We were playing every bit as hard as we were when we were losing. We just attacked the 1-3-1 the way we practiced for it.”
New Castle stormed back with an 8-0 run, closing to 13-10 with 1:54 to go in the quarter. Stew Allen netted six of those points in the spurt and he had eight of the ’Canes’ points at that stage.
“Coach Blundo just told us we have to step it up. Keep calm, this is the type of adversity that he said was going to happen,” Allen said. “You have to learn how to play through this type of stuff.”
Allen finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
“Stew had a really good offensive game and he had a fantastic defensive game,” Blundo said. “He was guarding the 6-8 kid (Ryan Luther); he was five inches shorter than him. But I thought he did a marvelous job on the interior and on the perimeter.”
The Talbots led the whole first quarter, including 17-16 going to the second stanza. Levar Ware cashed in a putback at the buzzer to draw New Castle within a marker.
Joey Lafko, the coach’s son, buried a 3-pointer to push Hampton’s lead to 20-16. But the ’Canes once again fought back, finding the range from the outside.
Jake McPhatter ignited an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer and Drew Allen’s trifecta on the next possession gave New Castle a 22-20 advantage. The ’Canes never trailed the rest of the way.
“We executed and we put it in our head that we have to go now,” said Drew, Stew’s brother, of the run. “We turned up our effort. Every play and every second. We knew we couldn’t take any plays off. We just kept going and going. Before you knew it, we were leading. We kept it going.”
Drew Allen backed up Stew Allen’s effort with 14 markers on 6-of-10 shooting.
Stew Allen made a bucket inside and Anthony Richards capped the run when he drained a 3-pointer with 5:01 remaining in the first half. New Castle moved the ball around from the outside to the inside and back out where Richards caught and launched his triplicate.
“We just talk about another level, another level,” Richards said. “We don’t ever want to put the brakes on. We don’t ever want to coast.
“When we start to get going, we want to go another level. If they’re turning it up, we want to go another notch up.”
The Talbots cut the deficit to 29-26 on a field goal by Luther with 49 seconds left. New Castle held for the last shot, but the Talbots made things difficult with their pesky defense.
The Talbots knocked the ball out of bounds with two seconds left in the half. Richards went to throw the ball in and a Hampton defender quickly swatted the ball back out of bounds with 1.1 seconds remaining. Richards had one more attempt to get the ball in. He looked a couple of directions, fired the ball in off the backside of Collin Luther, caught it under the basket and laid it in at the buzzer for a 31-26 advantage.
“I get a second chance to inbound the ball. We run the same play,” Richards said. “I seen the way they were guarding that they had their butt to the baseline. With 1.1 seconds left, we’re probably not going to get a good shot out of what we run, unless it’s a tip-in.
“I rolled the dice. I threw it off his back and it worked. Thank God.”
Richards’ basket energized the entire team, as they sprinted to the other end with big smiles heading for the locker room.
“That was a huge point in the game,” Blundo said. “That’s two points you don’t expect to get and it was a heads-up play by Anthony.
“It’s not something we work on. Anthony probably recalled us talking about defensive strategies if we’re in that situation. They opened the door for him to do something like that and he made the play.”
New Castle dominated the early stages of the third quarter, building its largest lead of the game at 39-29 with 4:25 to play in the period.
“At halftime, (coach Blundo) just told us we have to keep playing,” Stew Allen said. “Two more quarters of basketball and you’ll be WPIAL champs. This has to be your hardest defensive game ever. Don’t force anything, just try to make your own shots and just play Hurricane basketball.”
Ryan Luther tossed in a 3-pointer with three seconds to go in third to cap the quarter with the ’Canes up 45-40. Chandler McKinney converted a field goal just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 45-42, but it was as close as Hampton would get the rest of the way.
Stew Allen continued to be a force in the middle, working his way for a bucket in the paint with 5:18 remaining. Malik Hooker then threw down a dunk off a Talbots turnover with 4:42 to go and a 49-42 advantage.
Hooker was limited to just six points. He entered the game as the county’s leading scorer at 23.4 points a game.
“We’re a very versatile team,” Hooker said. “One night, I’ll come out and have 30-something points. And another night, Anthony Richards will come out and have 30-some. And Stew, Drew, Jake, and even the guys on the bench, not only can they score, but we’re so versatile that anybody on our team can score.”
Hooker helped out in other areas with nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
“We’ve always felt we’re a pretty good basketball team,” Blundo said. “I thought Malik played really well. I’m one of those guys that believes if you do two out of the three biggest areas well, you played well. If you do all three well, you played great.
“He defended and rebounded tremendous (Saturday). In my estimation, he played a really good basketball game. Some of the plays that he made, only Malik could make.”
Hampton made it a two-possession game when Ryan Luther converted a three-point play at 53-47 with 50l.7 seconds to play. But Drew Allen converted a layup with 38 seconds to go to put the game away.
Members of the New Castle bench raced on to the center of the floor to celebrate when the clock expired, signifying the program’s 10th WPIAL championship.
The ’Canes will square off against Bethel Park, the fifth-place entry out of the WPIAL, at 3 p.m. Saturday at Chartiers Valley in the first round of the PIAA playoffs. Hampton will battle City League champion Allderdice on Saturday at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Obama Academy in Pittsburgh.