What a relief it is
New Castle (55) Vs. Erie Strong Vincent (52)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
EDINBORO — Whew!
The New Castle High boys basketball team and its huge fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief last night when the remaining seconds ticked off the clock at Edinboro University’s McComb Fieldhouse.
Marquel Hooker came up big in the final 1:03 of the contest on both ends of the floor and the Red Hurricane survived for a 55-52 PIAA Class AAA first-round win over Erie Strong Vincent in front of a near-capacity crowd.
New Castle (21-5) will meet Indiana (25-2) in the second round of the state playoffs Tuesday at a time and site to be announced. The Little Indians, who won the WPIAL championship, advanced with a 42-38 decision over South Fayette.
“Every now and then, a game plays out exactly how you think it’s going to,” fifth-year ’Canes coach Ralph Blundo said. “Win or lose, I didn’t know where it was going to go. But I really thought that this is what the game was going to look like. Two junkyard dogs playing really, really hard.
“That’s what you get in games like this. Because of that, sometimes it didn’t look so pretty.”
New Castle, which led most of the game, fell behind 51-48 with 4:20 to play when David Morris drained a pair of foul shots.
“We’re not going to fold,” Blundo said. “Our guys are going to keep plugging, keep playing.
“I thought at times our youth definitely showed tonight with our composure and with things that we hold dear to our heart that we’re good at. But we’re young and it’s my job to fix that.”
Despite the deficit, the ’Canes dug in on both ends of the floor.
Hooker buried a pair of foul shots with 3:12 remaining to trim the deficit to 51-50. Geno Stone cashed in a field goal inside to give New Castle the lead at 52-51 with 2:34 to go.
Tyvon Green had a chance to give the Colonels (17-9) the lead when he stepped to the line, but he split a pair of freebies to knot the count at 52 with 2:22 to go. Strong Vincent struggled at the charity stripe, going just 10 of 20 at the line.
“That’s the story of our season,” Strong Vincent coach Shannon Pullium said. “We can’t blame anybody but ourselves.
“It’s very frustrating. I tip my hat to New Castle. They play hard, they know how to win. We have to get to that point in our program, where we’re winning the close games and knocking down foul shots when they count. And that’s every time they go to the foul line.”
Morris, a sophomore guard who came in needing 24 points to reach 1,000 for his career, fouled out with 1:52 to go and the score deadlocked at 52. He finished with 23 tallies.
“Certainly down the stretch with him out of the game, that was a big reason why we were able to win,” Blundo said.
Said Pullium, “I’m sure he’d trade those 23 points in for a win. I tip my hat to him, he had some foul trouble and he stuck with it.”
Stone split a pair of foul shots on Morris’ fifth foul to put New Castle up 53-52. Strong Vincent turned the ball over with 1:10 to go when the ’Canes’ D’Marqus Blanchard picked off an errant pass for a key turnover.
The Colonels fouled Hooker with 1:10 to go and he made the first freebie, but missed the second to keep the buffer at 54-52. Hooker came in averaging a team-best 81.1 percent at the foul line.
Hooker delivered at the defensive end when he stole the ball with less than 20 seconds to go. He was later fouled with 8.7 seconds remaining, misfiring on the first attempt before burying the crucial second shot for a 55-52 advantage.
“When I’m at practice, when I’m shooting my free throws, I just imagine I’m in a game and shoot them like I’m in a game,” Hooker said.
Hooker, a junior, finished with nine points and a team-high 10 rebounds. He was 4 of 6 at the foul line as well.
“Marquel is a winner,” Blundo said. “He made a couple of huge plays defensively and he was pretty good at the free-throw line.
“Marquel is one of the best free-throw shooters in western Pa., and he’s made them all year. But it’s the defensive plays that he’s made. I’m really proud of Marquel Hooker. He’s evolving into one heck of a basketball player.”
Strong Vincent had one final attempt, a last-second 3-pointer that was off the mark. Colonels players, coaches and fans screamed for a foul and several even followed the officiating crew off the floor, but New Castle held on to send its faithful into a frenzy and home happy.
The ’Canes turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 28 times, compared to 17 for the losers.
“We turned the ball over way too many times, but it was a credit to them,” Blundo said.
A 13-0 run rallied New Castle from a 15-7 deficit late in the first quarter to a 20-15 advantage with 6:02 to go in the first half. Robert Natale had six of those 13 points during on the run on a pair of 3-pointers. He bucketed a team-high 21 points, 18 of which came in the first half.
Natale was 8 of 17 from the field with four assists, three steals and three rebounds.
“He shot it great in the first half,” Blundo said of Natale. “If you look at the game, it was different guys in different moments. That’s what good basketball teams do. We didn’t play well tonight, but we played well enough to win and our kids kept fighting. They’re young. They’re hungry. And I’m proud of them.”
The ’Canes led 31-24 at the break and kept the advantage the entire third quarter with the exception of one tie at 37 that lasted all of nine seconds. New Castle held a 44-43 lead going to the fourth quarter despite turning the ball over 10 times in the period.
“They’re really athletic and they play really hard,” Blundo said of Strong Vincent. “Athletic teams that play really hard are going to cause everybody problems and that’s what they did. They played hard. They’re exactly who I thought they’d be.”