’Canes refuse to lose against Hampton
New Castle (57) Vs. Hampton (55)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News

BETHEL PARK — Eight just wasn’t enough.

Nine seemed pretty fine for the New Castle High boys basketball team Saturday.

The Red Hurricane registered its ninth-straight victory over Hampton and secured a berth in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals as well.

New Castle battled back from a nine-point third-quarter deficit to rally for a 57-55 state quarterfinal win over the Talbots at Bethel Park High School.

It’s the second-straight trip to the state semifinals for the ’Canes (29-0), who will play Abington at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Chambersburg High School. The Ghosts (25-5) held off Martin Luther King, 56-52, to advance.

“This is very special for our program,” said fourth-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo. “To lose three starters and return to the western final with the same record as last year is beyond anything we could have predicted.

“You can’t predict how much a team is going to improve over the course of the year. You hope they continue to get better. That is the biggest thing, getting better and not getting caught standing still. If you’re standing still, people will catch you.”

New Castle handed the Talbots (24-5) four of their five losses this season. The ’Canes have won three-straight WPIAL championship games against Hampton as well.

“Most times, it is more simple than you think,” Blundo said of his team’s recent run of success against Hampton. “We just made a couple more plays than them in each game.”

Hampton coach Joe Lafko, a former Westminster College standout, acknowledged the quality of opponent his team faced Saturday.

“They’re undefeated for a reason,” Lafko said of New Castle. “We’re just unfortunately the ones playing them for all these finals and championships.

“It’s not just against us that the competition that New Castle gives you that forces you to lose the basketball game. They’ve done it to everybody. We’ve just been fortunate enough to play them in the championship rounds.”

New Castle is 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. The ’Canes have won 49-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. New Castle has won 85 of its last 87 games. The ’Canes also climbed in the national rankings, moving from No. 36 to No. 34 in the USA Today poll.

There will be a new No. 1 in the state poll as well. The state’s top-ranked team — Philadelphia Roman Catholic — was eliminated Wednesday night by Lower Merion, 64-52.

The Talbots opened a 13-2 lead on New Castle in the district championship game and sprinted out to an 8-3 lead Saturday. But the ’Canes quickly regrouped before Hampton could push that buffer out further.

New Castle went on a 15-1 run for an 18-9 lead on a bucket inside by Robert Natale with 12 seconds remaining. Malik Hooker had four points in the early going, but a pair of fouls.

“Typically, when you’re holding for one shot, you get it off with four or three (seconds),” Blundo said. “But Robert broke wide open underneath and we found him with 12 seconds left.

“We’ll take a layup any time.”

Hooker remained on the floor to play defense with the flow of the action continuing after the made bucket. But he was whistled for a shooting foul with 3.6 seconds to go, sending David Huber to the line. Huber made both foul shots and New Castle held an 18-11 buffer after one period.

“They’re coming hard the other way,” Blundo said. “Malik went to contest the shot and they called a foul. We knew we had to hold the fort.”

Hooker sat the entire second quarter and the Talbots won the stanza, 23-9, for a 34-27 halftime advantage.

“I thought we had to extend the lead a little bit more on New Castle,” Lafko said. “Seven points at the half, we were OK with that. But with Malik out, to win that game, I think you need a little bit more of a cushion.

“Had we been able to get it to double figures or around 15 points, I think it might be a different outcome.”

The ’Canes’ nine second-quarter markers came on one 3-pointer each from Anthony Richards, Natale and Micah Fulena.

“I thought Micah did an excellent job,” Blundo said. “He put some pressure on their defense.

“We were really undermanned at that point with Malik out of the game. We just had to survive at that point.”

Said Richards, “We had a couple of guys that stepped up and did the job. We just found a way to survive that second quarter without our best player.”

New Castle was in an unfamiliar position at halftime, trailing by seven. But Blundo kept his message at the break simple to his players.

“Just keep diggin’. Just keep diggin’. That’s what he was telling us,” Richards said. “You can’t get it back with just one possession.

“So we’re going to go one play at a time. Then we’ll go to the next play. Then to the next play. That’s all you can do.”

Hooker made an immediate impact, burying a deep 3-pointer just 25 seconds into the second half to close the deficit to 34-30. The Talbots went on a 7-2 run to take their biggest lead of the game at 41-32 on a 3-pointer by Huber with 4:38 left in the third quarter.

“Everybody just feeds off of Malik. He picks up everybody up 10 times more,” ’Canes senior Drew Allen said. “I think him coming back made a statement. It wasn’t our last 16 minutes together. We wanted to play hard.”

New Castle went on a 10-2 run to close to within 43-42 with 36 seconds remaining in the stanza. Senior Stew Allen, who is Drew’s twin brother, netted four pivotal points inside during the run to fuel the comeback.

“Coach Blundo teaches us how to act when adversity strikes. It clearly struck,” Stew Allen. “We were down and none of us worried or thought we were going to lose. We kept our heads. We got back into it and played New Castle basketball.”

Richards related the key to the ’Canes’ third-quarter offensive success.

“They switched up their defense and we found a way to get the ball to Malik a little bit,” he said. “He made a couple of plays and we made a couple of shots.”

Hampton’s Collin Luther tossed in a field goal with six seconds left to close the quarter at 45-42.

The Talbots would do very little offensively the rest of the way. They scored just four points in the first 7:33 of the quarter.

“We put all our energy into our defense,” Stew Allen said. “The score was close and we couldn’t let them get any extra ones.

“Coach Blundo said this isn’t going to be your final eight minutes. Go out there and play hard and we did.”

Richards buried his third 3-pointer of the game with 6:43 remaining to tie the game at 46. It was the 300th 3-pointer of his career. Hooker hit a field goal with 5:11 left to give New Castle its first lead at 48-47 since a 27-26 advantage with 2:40 to play in the opening half.

“They jumped out again and played well early again, like they did in the WPIAL (championship) game,” Hooker said. “But this game, they kept the lead until the second half.

“They did the same stuff against us that Hampton always does.”

Drew Allen’s runner in traffic with 3:12 to go gave the ’Canes the lead for good at 50-49.

“We knew this was a big one for us,” Drew Allen said. “It’s our last time ever playing them. Both teams wanted to win. Especially with a trip to the semifinals on the line.”

Stew Allen got loose again inside and made another layup for a 52-49 lead with 2:01 to go, drawing a huge roar from the New Castle faithful.

Luther misfired on a 3-pointer on the other end and Natale snared the key rebound. Luther was whistled for an intentional foul on Drew Allen with 43.5 seconds left and Allen split a pair to push the count to 53-49.

The ’Canes retained possession because of the intentional foul and Hampton was forced to foul again. This time, Natale drained both ends of a one-and-one for a 55-49 advantage with 32.9 seconds left.

“I was there for my team, just trying to do the best I can,” Natale said. “I got to the free-throw line and I had to knock them down.”

Luther converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 28.2 seconds left to cut New Castle’s lead to 55-52.

Natale split a pair of freebies on the other end for a 56-52 lead with 26.6 seconds left. Hooker committed a steal with 7.2 seconds left and he split a pair of foul shots for a 57-52 edge.

“They shut us down in the fourth quarter,” Lafko said. “Defense always wins championships.”

Luther tossed in a 3-pointer with three-tenths of a second left and all the ’Canes needed to do was get the ball in to secure the victory. They did, throwing a long heave to Hooker and the celebration from the players and fans was on.

“That’s like a sixth man for us,” Drew Allen said of the fan support. “They picked us up a lot. When they’re cheering, they get us going 10 times harder. We knew we had people behind us and believing in us.”

Hooker and Natale paced New Castle with 11 points each, while Drew Allen and Stew Allen supplied 10 apiece. Hooker contributed five rebounds, five assists and five steals, while Natale pulled down five boards.

Drew Allen collected 10 rebounds and handed out six assists. Stew Allen was 5 of 6 from the floor with five boards.

Luther paced all scorers with 26 points and his twin brother Ryan Luther added 13. Ryan Luther, a senior and Pitt recruit who netted over 1,900 career markers for the Talbots, was held scoreless in the second half.

“We executed fabulously in the second half,” Blundo said. “Stew was remarkable. At 6-3, guarding against a 6-8 kid, his post defense was tremendous. His perimeter defense was equally as good.

“Stew maintained his gaps and he did everything fundamentally right. His ball pressure on the wing was good, too.”

Said Stew Allen, “I had to focus all my strength and energy on keeping Ryan Luther out of the post because that’s where he tends to hurt us. I tried to do my job. Tried to keep him out of the post. Coach Blundo wanted to keep him out on the perimeter, so I tried to keep him out there as much as I could. I just didn’t want him in the paint at all, and neither did coach Blundo.”

The successful execution of the game plan has the ’Canes heading to the semifinals for a second-straight season tomorrow.

*****

Read much more in Monday’s print edition:
•Malik Hooker’s foul trouble
•Robert Natale’s free throws
•Anthony Richards’ free throws
Game Scoreboard
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 OT SCORE
New Castle 18 9 15 15 0 57
Hampton 11 23 11 10 0 55
Box Scores
HAMPTON (55)
Jack Obringer 0 0-0 0
Ryan Luther 4 4-5 13
Collin Luther 10 5-5 26
David Huber 3 3-4 10
Joey Lafko 3 0-0 6
Hayden Seserko 0 0-0 0
Jack Morrison 0 0-0 0.
Totals: 20 12-14 55.

NEW CASTLE (57)
Anthony Richards 3 0-0 9
Malik Hooker 3 4-9 11
Jake McPhatter 1 0-0 3
Stew Allen 5 0-0 10
Drew Allen 4 1-2 10
Micah Fulena 1 0-0 3
Levar Ware 0 0-0 0
Robert Natale 3 3-4 11.
Totals: 20 8-15 57.
HAMPTON 11 23 11 10 — 55
NEW CASTLE 18 9 15 15 — 57
3-point goals — Hampton 3 (R. Luther 1, C. Luther 1, Huber 1), New Castle 9 (McPhatter 1, Richards 3, D. Allen 1, Hooker 1, Natale 2, Fulena 1).
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