New Castle boys drop overtime heartbreaker
New Castle (76) Vs. Highlands (79)
WEXFORD — Heads were down. Tears were flowing. And dejection was written on faces.

It was a sight that was anything but familiar in the New Castle High boys basketball team's locker room following Tuesday's game as coach Ralph Blundo met with his squad.

Foul trouble and rebounding helped spell doom for the Red Hurricane Tuesday night in a 79-76 overtime loss to Highlands at a packed and boisterous North Allegheny High School gymnasium in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals.

"When you're a kid, the only thing you think about is that you lost," Blundo said. "The other thing you think about is the investment. That's why it hurts so bad. If we didn't have as much invested it wouldn't hurt so bad.

"The bottom line is it was a close basketball game and I have to find a way to buy my team two or three more points throughout the course of the game. This loss isn't on my players, this loss is on me."

It was the sixth straight year top-seeded New Castle (23-2) appeared in the district semifinals, all during Blundo's six-year tenure. What's more crushing is that it's the second consecutive three-point loss in the semifinals for his team, last year being a 52-49 setback to Beaver Falls.

Golden Rams coach Tyler Stoczynski acknowledged the magnitude of his 21-4 team's win over an elite program like New Castle. He has gradually improved his squad, going 1-21 his first season, 9-13 his second and 13-14 last year, reaching the WPIAL quarterfinals.

"There's a reason they're in every single semifinals, if not the finals," Stoczynski said. "Their coach is the best coach in the WPIAL. That speaks on his record of where his team is and his team is so consistent. They're scrappy, they play hard and they play together."

Now Stoczynski's group, the No. 4 seed, will play in the WPIAL championship game at 9 p.m. Friday at Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center against Beaver Falls. The second-seeded Tigers knocked off Mars, 59-58.

Marquel Hooker and Micah Fulena both fouled out, Hooker with 24.1 seconds to go in regulation and Fulena with 19.9 ticks to go in overtime. The 'Canes led 63-62 when Hooker exited and trailed 79-76 when Fulena was sent to the bench.

Hooker and Fulena comprise two of the team's five seniors. They also were taking the loss especially hard in the locker room. Blundo gave each of them a big hug and consoled them to take some of the sting away.

"The reason you feel the way you feel right now is because of how much you have invested," Blundo told his players after the game. "We have a state tournament to play, guys. We have to bounce back." And that's how Blundo's postgame speech concluded.

Blundo continued regarding his seniors, "You always feel badly for the seniors because this is their last opportunity to win a WPIAL championship. It didn't happen. Highlands played a great basketball game. Really at the end, the foul trouble caught up to us. We just had a hard time controlling (Lavontae) Martin. That's really what it came down to. We were fighting down there, we really were. He was just shoving us around."

Garrett Farah, a junior who comes off the bench, made two foul shots with 21.6 seconds remaining to put New Castle up 65-62. It ended up being New Castle's lone two points off the bench for the contest.

"I was proud of Garrett, he gutted it out tonight. They all did," Blundo said. "My kids played their hearts out tonight. Unfortunately, I needed to be better tonight (coaching) and I wasn't."

Despite pushing the lead to three and forcing Highlands to shoot from the outside, Mitch Dezort found enough room in the corner and buried a tying 3-pointer with 12 seconds to go in regulation.

"They pushed it down the sideline," Blundo said. "We were in a gap just a little bit. Pat (Minenok) got out and contested it but the kid made it. God bless the kid, he made a great shot."

Said Stoczynski of the tying triple, "When you put in the time like he does to get better, you deserve to make shots like that. That's something we firmly believe in, if you're not working hard, things don't fall your way."

The 'Canes weren't able to get the winning basket in regulation and the game went to an extra session.

New Castle held three leads in overtime at 67-65, 68-67 and 70-69. But each time the 'Canes would forge a lead, the Golden Rams had an answer on the other end. Brayden Thimons' basket inside put Highlands up for good at 76-74 with 1:35 to go.

Geno Stone misfired on New Castle's next possession and Martin gave the Golden Rams some breathing room with a field goal for a 78-74 advantage with 58 seconds to go.

Minenok cut it to 78-76 with a basket in traffic inside with 28 seconds left and Blundo called a timeout. The 'Canes fouled right away, sending Ryan Boda to the line for a two-shot foul with 25 seconds left. But Boda missed both shots. New Castle, though couldn't corral the rebound and the ball was distributed back to Boda, who once again was fouled. Boda split a pair of freebies with 19.9 seconds for a 79-76 lead.

The 'Canes had one final shot to force a second overtime, but Gino DeMonaco's desperation attempt from behind the arc was short and Martin secured the final board as the clock expired, sending the Golden Rams fans into a frenzy. New Castle's faithful was in disbelief.

The 'Canes, who routinely hit close to double figures in 3-pointers made in a game this year, and often more, were limited to just 2 of 14 from behind the arc.

"They did a really job guarding the three-point line," Blundo said. "Contrary to the end of regulation, we didn't do a good job of guarding the three-point at the end of regulation. That's why they got that look. And again, that's on me."

Martin gave New Castle fits inside, finishing with game-high totals of 22 points and 21 rebounds. Many of his points came from close range, including putbacks.

"He was just the most physically strong player we've played this year," Blundo said. "That's what it came down to. Just physically strong. We just had a hard time moving him. He got too many offensive putbacks."

Hooker and Geno Stone paced New Castle with 21 points apiece. Hooker was 9 of 19 from the floor with eight boards and four steals, while Stone was 7 of 16 with four steals. Minenok chipped in 14 markers and a team-best 15 rebounds.

The 'Canes will get some rest to gear up for the state playoffs, which open March 4.

Game Scoreboard
New Castle 12 13 19 21 11 76
Highlands 8 15 14 28 14 79
Box Scores
Brayden Thimons 3 0-1 6
Ryan Boda 2 3-6 8
Jamison Nee 5 8-10 20
Lavontae Martin 10 2-5 22
Mitch Dezort 7 4-6 19
R.J. Reiger 1 0-0 2
Lamar McKamey 1 0-0 2
Totals: 29 16-29 79

Marquel Hooker 9 2-6 21
Geno Stone 7 6-6 21
Micah Fulena 2 5-6 9
Marcus Hooker 3 3-5 9
Pat Minenok 6 2-4 14
Gino DeMonaco 0 0-0 0
Lorenzo Gardner 0 0-0 0
Garrett Farah 0 2-2 2
Brandon Parchman 0 0-0 0
Totals: 27 20-29 76

HIGHLANDS 8 15 14 28 14 — 79
NEW CASTLE 12 13 19 21 11 — 76

3-point goals — Highlands 4 (Nee 2, Boda 1, Dezort 1), New Castle 2 (Marq. Hooker 1, Stone 1).
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