History in Hershey: ’Canes best in state
New Castle (52) Vs. La Salle College (39)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
HERSHEY — Hugs. Handshakes. High-fives.
And smiles big enough to light up all of Hershey.
If you were lucky enough to be in Chocolatetown on Saturday night to watch the New Castle High boys basketball team, you got to witness all of that.
The Red Hurricane took the lead for good in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth quarter en route to a 52-39 PIAA Class AAAA championship-game win over La Salle College High at Hershey’s GIANT Center. It’s the first state title in program history for New Castle.
“Gentlemen, when we ended practice yesterday and the six seniors spoke a little bit ... I saw in your eyes exactly what I wanted to see. And it wasn’t the eye of the tiger or anything like that. That’s what you’d assume,” said fourth-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo in the locker room after the game.
“I saw young men being exactly who I wanted them to become. And it was emotional for me. Because as I’ve told you over four years, we just kept becoming better young men. Then along the line, we just kept winning basketball games. And then something crazy happened. We won a state championship.”
The crowd was announced at 6,641, with an estimated 5,000 of them rooting on the ’Canes.
New Castle (31-0) capped a perfect season with the program’s first state championship in four tries. The ’Canes are ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with wins in 87 of their last 89 games.
New Castle also climbed in the national rankings, moving from No. 34 to No. 33 in the USA Today poll.
The Explorers (23-7) were competing in their first state championship games since joining the PIAA six years ago.
The ’Canes were in an unfamiliar spot at halftime, locked in a low-scoring 16-all deadlock.
“That’s never happened before,” Blundo said of the low score. “I just told them there’s 16 more minutes on this floor together. Let’s fight. Let’s fight as hard as we can possibly fight.
“We’ll put you in the right places to give you opportunities to score. When you get opportunities, cash in.”
Blundo knew his team was battling in the first half despite its low scoring output.
“I think both teams were fine at the beginning of the game,” Blundo said. “That was very good basketball. It was two teams guarding really, really well.
“It definitely wasn’t two teams not playing well offensively. Because I thought both teams were.”
Shawn Witherspoon gave La Salle College an 18-16 lead 51 seconds into the second half. But Jake McPhatter drained a 3-pointer the next trip down the floor to give New Castle a 19-18 lead.
McPhatter was energized prior to the game when he got word his dad, Jake L., would be in attendance. His dad was involved in a one-car accident Feb. 25 and was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown. He was cleared Saturday to attend the game.
The younger Jake also drilled a 3-pointer with 4:06 remaining in the third to give the ’Canes a 24-20 lead. He finished with nine points and six rebounds.
“His performance was extraordinary,” Blundo said of McPhatter. “We found out earlier in the day, by the good wishes of the hospital personnel, that his dad would be there.
“Just before shootaround at Lower Dauphin High School, Jake was spot-on. He was at so much peace knowing his dad was coming. I looked at my assistants and said Jake is going to have a heck of a game. I knew those shots were going in because he was at peace.”
“My dad was in the stands. I didn’t know if he’d be able to come,” Jake McPhatter said. “It was the hospital’s decision for him to come. A couple hours before the game, my dad texted me and said he was coming down. That was a such a relief. It was amazing to know he was here to witness this because this is history.
“We’re together. There’s no ‘he has to hit the shots’ or ‘he has to do this or that’. It’s everybody. Everybody has to pick each other up. We pick each other up.”
Drew Allen’s field goal with 5:31 to play in the third gave the ’Canes a 21-20 advantage. It was a lead New Castle wouldn’t relinquish.
“Coach said just keep playing your game and keep getting stops and everything will come to us,” Allen said of the halftime pointers from Blundo. “We did that. We got a real cushion and we kept that. Being able to do that in the second half was good.”
Stew Allen picked up his third foul with 1:45 to go in the third quarter and the ’Canes nursing a 26-23 advantage. Levar Ware subbed in for Allen and quickly made an impact.
Ware made a bucket in the paint for a 28-23 lead with 1:02 remaining in the third stanza.
Witherspoon split a pair of foul shots to close to 28-24 with 48.6 seconds to go in the third quarter. New Castle was content to hold for one final shot to end the quarter.
Malik Hooker drove inside and flipped up a layup with two seconds to go, pushing the count to 30-24 going to the final frame.
“It wasn’t even me. It was big plays that everyone made,” Hooker said. “Big plays that Levar made. The threes that Jake McPhatter were big, too. It wasn’t just me.
“We knew coming in at halftime, we knew we were going to get stop after stop and I believed that. That’s what happened. We ended up going up and we held it down from there.”
La Salle College cut it to four twice in the fourth quarter, at 30-26 with 7:38 to go and 33-29 with 5:34 left. But the Explorers never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Stew Allen finally checked back in with 3:18 to go in the game and the ’Canes holding a 38-31 lead. He replaced Ware, who finished with five points and three boards and did a strong job at both ends so the ’Canes could avoid any further foul trouble for Stew Allen.
“Levar came in and he really sparked us,” Blundo said. “He didn’t make a single mistake. He was great defensively.
“That’s what being a team is all about. When your number is called, it’s about doing the best job you can do.”
Hooker netted seven of his 13 points in the final period. He added 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals as well.
“It was just us getting stop after stop, keeping the ball in front of us when they were taking shots,” Hooker said of the fourth quarter. “That’s what we did. They missed a lot of shots and we took advantage of it. We’d get the rebound and take it down and make a play or get fouled.”
La Salle College began fouling with just over two minutes to go in the game. New Castle was 14 of 22 from the charity stripe in the quarter and 16 of 27 for the contest.
Hooker was 5 of 8 at the line in the last eight minutes and Anthony Richards was 4 of 6. Richards buried his first two attempts with 1:15 to go for a 47-37 lead.
“It’s just repetition,” Richards said. “When I’m shooting free throws, I’m not shooting it to get better. I’m shooting for that moment where I get to the free-throw line and I have to make a big free throw. That’s all I’m thinking.”
Richards split a pair of foul shots with 53 seconds left for a 49-39 lead and he was fouled again with 51.9 ticks to go. The ’Canes’ faithful were going crazy with their team just under 52 seconds away from a first state championship.
Richards again split two freebies with 51.9 seconds to play for a 50-39 lead and the final moments were played with a chorus of New Castle cheers.
“In the fourth quarter, we had a decent cushion and we were hitting our free throws,” ’Canes senior Drew Allen of when he could sense the title was locked up. “The time got down under a minute and the crowd started cheering. After we kept going back to the line again and again, I started having a good feeling.”
Blundo substituted freely with 11 seconds to go. The Explorers’ Charles Champion launched a 3-pointer and it was off the mark. The ’Canes’ Pat Minenok grabbed the final rebound with two seconds to go and the celebration was on for New Castle.
Drew Allen shared team-high honors with Hooker with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He grabbed three rebounds as well. Allen delivered seven of his markers in the second half. He did his damage on drives inside, penetrating through the La Salle defense.
“I wanted to just run and assert myself,” Drew Allen said. “I knew the game would come to me. I didn’t want to force anything, if I could do that, then I played my role for my team and came up big.”
Drew Allen’s brother Stew Allen delivered eight points and four rebounds. Stew’s assignment was limiting La Salle College’s Dave Krmpotich, who came in averaging a team-high 11.5 points a game.
Krmpotich was held to just eight points.
“It was just a fact of keeping him out of the post and not trying to let him pin me deep,” Stew Allen said. “He can do a lot of damage down low. I tried to be as physical as I could be without drawing any fouls on me. I tried to keep him out of the post and not give him anything easy.”
Said Blundo, “I was really confident Stew could do the job. Our midline help was really good in the post. Stew did a great job of being physical with him. Not allowing him to go where he wanted to go. He kept him off the glass with a body on him.”
Najee Walls led all scorers with 15 points.
Following the medal ceremony, Drew Allen hoisted the trophy high, displaying it proudly for New Castle’s fans. Stew Allen had a memento as well — a giant Hershey bar.
Much more inside Monday’s print edition:
•Strong minutes from Levar Ware made the difference
•A key stretch that turned uncertainty into gold
•The incredible accomplishment of 31-0
•New Castle fans were, indeed, the "sixth man"
•Win was sweet for Richards and Natale father-son duos
•Championship game notebook