New Castle throttles Hampton to reach semifinals
New Castle (78) Vs. Hampton (61)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News

BEAVER FALLS — The faces may have changed a bit for both teams.

But the result still was the same: The New Castle High boys basketball team conquered the latest challenge from Hampton.

Brothers Marcus and Marquel Hooker netted 18 points each to lead the Red Hurricane to a 78-61 WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal-round win over the Talbots at a packed Metheny Fieldhouse on the campus of Geneva College last night.

The win avenged an 87-67 loss to the Talbots at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House in December. The ’Canes (20-4) are 10-1 in their last 11 meetings with Hampton (19-5), dating back to the 2011-2012 season.

“I don’t think it’s a spell that we have over them,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “They came into our gym and beat us by 20 points in December. We’re two teams that go out and compete. We’ve been fortunate to win a bunch of them and we’re proud of that.

“It was a great win because we get to the next round and we did it against a great team. They’re an excellent team, we just played a little better (last night).”

The loss was a tough one for Hampton coach Joe Lafko, who was on the losing end of all three of New Castle’s district championship wins during the current stretch.

“I feel bad for these kids,” he said of his players. “I feel bad for the seniors. When you lose to good teams, you have nothing to be ashamed of. New Castle is a good team.”

The victory propelled the sixth-seeded ’Canes to the WPIAL semifinals for the fifth straight season and a rematch with second-seeded Beaver Falls (21-2). The Tigers knocked off New Castle twice in Section 2 action.

“It’s awesome,” Blundo said of his team reaching the semifinals again. “It’s a great time of year. I just love it because you feel bad for any kid that doesn’t get the experience. You want it for each any every one of your groups to just be able to experience what it’s like.

“I think it’s safe to say that experiencing it at New Castle is probably a bit different than anywhere else in the WPIAL and that’s really what makes it special.”

The ’Canes are the three-time defending WPIAL champion and the defending state champ.

The teams were tied three times in the first 16 minutes and Hampton led by as much as eight at 14-6 with 3:10 to go in the opening stanza before settling for a 16-13 buffer after one.

New Castle battled throughout the entire first half and led just once at 24-23 with 3:01 to go before halftime when Micah Fulena split a pair of foul shots. But Antonio Ionadi drained a 3-pointer on the Talbots’ next trip down the floor just 15 seconds later. Hampton held a 29-28 advantage at the break.

“Coach said to just keep doing what you’re doing and play harder,” Marcus Hooker said of Blundo’s halftime message. “He said we need more intensity and to keep pressuring the ball; don’t let them get past you.”

Blundo’s message sank in for the squad. Just like Tuesday’s win over South Park, Marcus Hooker scored the first basket of the second half on a field goal inside. He nailed the foul shot to complete the three-point play to give the ’Canes a 31-29 lead just nine seconds into the third quarter.

“They were trying to stop us from getting to the hoop and trying to make us shoot more,” Marcus Hooker said. “We just kept going at them and going inside.”

Marcus Hooker, just a freshman, was 8 of 10 from the floor with a team-high 10 rebounds. He added three assists and three steals as well.

“He rebounded great and he was everywhere,” Blundo said of Marcus Hooker. “He’s just a kid. He’s going to keep getting better. Those guys are all better today than they were 20 games ago.”

Said Marcus Hooker, “I grew up a lot this year. It was more of the coach yelling at me. But a lot of it was his teaching.”

Lafko acknowledged the effect Marcus Hooker had on the game.

“He’s a good ballplayer,” he said. “He’s athletic and he gets to the hoop exceptionally well.”

The teams traded leads through the first half of the third period. Until Robert Natale buried the ’Canes’ only 3-pointer of the game with 3:35 to go in the third put them up 41-40.

New Castle never trailed the rest of the way.

“It was a big, big shot,” Marquel Hooker said of Natale’s trifecta.

The ’Canes carried a 52-42 lead into the fourth quarter, their largest lead of the game to that point.

“The third quarter was the big turnaround,” Lafko said. “It forced us to change defenses in the fourth quarter. New Castle did a great job of handling the ball and taking care of it and finding open men whenever we were trying to trap them.”

Hampton got no closer than 58-48 in the fourth quarter with 6:17 remaining. The ’Canes took their largest advantage of the contest at 66-48 with 3:45 left and the New Castle faithful could taste another trip to the semifinals and yet another win over Hampton.

The Talbots turned the ball over 21 times, compared to just 11 for New Castle. Hampton had nine of its turnovers in the fourth quarter.

“We turned them over in the second half,” Blundo said. “They’re so hard to turn over because they’re so guard oriented.

“They were really trying hard to get the ball in the corners (in the fourth quarter). We were playing a defense that was making that difficult to do. They got a couple, but we were able to get some steals and some skip passes. I thought our guys did a great job of moving while the ball was in the air.”

Natale netted 13 markers for New Castle and Micah Fulena followed with 12. Geno Stone supplied 11.

Joey Lafko, the coach’s son, paced Hampton with 20 points. The senior guard poured in a game-high 37 markers in the first meeting.

Game Scoreboard
New Castle 13 15 24 26 0 78
Hampton 16 13 13 19 0 61
Box Scores
Marquel Hooker 4 10-11 18
Micah Fulena 3 6-8 12
Robert Natale 5 2-4 13
Pat Minenok 2 2-2 6
D’Marqus Blanchard 0 0-0 0
Marcus Hooker 8 2-2 18
Geno Stone 5 1-1 11
Totals: 27 23-28 78

Pat Murray 2 0-0 5
Joey Lafko 6 8-9 20
Jack Kramer 0 0-0 0
Antonio Ionadi 4 2-2 12
David Huber 0 1-2 1
Jack Morrison 5 3-4 16
Ben Huber 2 0-0 5
Kyle Reese 1 0-2 2
Totals: 20 14-19 61

NEW CASTLE 13 15 24 26 — 78
HAMPTON 16 13 13 19 — 61

3-point goals — New Castle 1 (Natale 1), Hampton 7 (Murray 1, Ionadi 2, Morrison 3, B. Huber 1).
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