New Castle's state title hopes dashed
New Castle (43) Vs. Erie Strong Vincent (68)
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
SLIPPERY ROCK — Not much went right for the New Castle High boys basketball team Saturday.
Shots weren’t falling. Starters were in foul trouble. And the rebounding battle, which was viewed as a pivotal key, tilted slightly in Erie Strong Vincent’s favor.
The Red Hurricane fell behind by 23 points in the late stages of the third quarter and couldn’t recover in dropping a 68-43 PIAA Class 4A quarterfinal-round matchup to the Colonels at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Field House.
“You would hope you would play better, but it doesn’t always work that way,” said seventh-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo. “We’ve played really well in the playoffs. I think somewhere along the line you’re going to play poorly, but you have to win that day you play poorly when you’re trying to win a championship.
“We were just playing too good of a team to play poorly today.”
The ‘Canes (25-3) were eliminated in the state quarterfinals for the third straight season.
Erie Strong Vincent (26-3) advances to the Final Four and will square off against Quaker Valley (25-3), a 77-66 winner over Middletown, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Slippery Rock University.
“I didn’t see the game being like this. I’d be lying if I said I did,” said Shannon Pullium, who is in his 18th season as the Colonels’ coach. “I knew it was going to be a battle and I thought it was going to come down to the last couple of possessions. I feel like we beat a great team.”
The scene inside the ‘Canes’ locker room following the game was an unfamiliar one — stunned looks and silence.
“I want to thank you seniors for taking us on a ride. A heck of a ride,” Blundo told the team. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming. I know I didn’t. But you did. You just kept getting better and took us on a ride.
“You just didn’t take us on a ride, you took an entire community on a ride. It means something to them. It gives them life and it gives them something to really look forward to. There’s a lot to be said about that. It takes a lot of hard work to take them on a ride. It doesn’t just happen.”
New Castle was 17 of 38 from the floor, including 3 of 15 from behind the arc. Perimeter shooting has been a trademark of the ‘Canes, making close to double figures or better from the outside in numerous games this season.
But the shots just weren’t going down against Erie Strong Vincent.
New Castle also turned the ball over 14 times, compared to 12 for the Colonels.
“They did a great job against us,” Blundo said. “Strong Vincent played great, they really did.”
Garrett Farah, Geno Stone and Gino DeMonaco all entered halftime with three fouls each for the ‘Canes.
“It knocks you out of sync a little bit, but that’s part of the game,” Blundo said of the foul trouble. “It’s our job to adjust to the way the referees are calling the game and not their job to adjust to us. We really didn’t do a good enough job of that in the first half.”
DeMonaco gave New Castle its only lead of the game at 3-2 when he buried a 3-pointer 34 seconds into the game. The teams were tied just once at 5, but Erie Strong Vincent’s William Lyons put his team up for good on a field goal with 3:10 to go in the period for a 7-5 margin.
“I thought they played a great, great basketball game,” Blundo said of the Colonels. “We had a bunch of empty possessions.
“We didn’t play well today. We didn’t shoot well today. But it wouldn’t be very smart of me to say that it had nothing to do with Strong Vincent. They disrupted us. They contested our shots, longer and harder than other teams did throughout the course of the year and the credit goes to them for that.”
The Colonels held a 13-10 lead after one quarter and New Castle cut it to 13-12 early in the second period. But Erie Strong Vincent took command with a quick 10-0 run to go up 23-12 with 5:12 remaining in the half.
“We didn’t get a lot of rebounds. Shots weren’t falling for us,” ‘Canes junior Marcus Hooker said. “A lot of bad things were happening throughout the game.”
Hooker scored 11 of his team-high 20 points in the second quarter to keep his squad in contention at 30-23 at the break.
“I just had this feeling where I didn’t want to lose,” Hooker said. “I didn’t want to see my seniors with sad faces at the end of the game. I wanted to do everything I could to help us win.”
Hooker was 8 of 12 from the field with team highs in rebounds (10) and blocks (3).
“Marcus is a great athlete and he stepped up in a big situation,” Blundo said. “He made some pull-up jumpers and really went after the ball. He’s a competitor and a tough kid.”
Said Pullium, “He was keeping them in the game. The scouting report was really to make him go left. But he’s such a great athlete and strong, he just does what he wants to do.”
Blundo kept his team in a positive frame of mind at the half, despite the foul trouble and seven-point deficit.
“Coach said don’t let up now. Come out and play hard; keep fighting,” Hooker said of the halftime words from Blundo. “We were focused on playing better defense and getting some buckets.”
New Castle’s defensive intensity increased, forcing turnovers on each of the Colonels’ first two second-half possessions. Te’Quawn Stewart cashed in a bucket inside to close the deficit to 30-25. But that was as close as the ‘Canes would get the rest of the way.
Erie Strong Vincent made four 3-pointers in the third quarter, three of which coming from Tennessee State recruit David Morris. Morris finished with a game-best 28 points, 17 coming in the third stanza.
“He hasn’t been scoring at his normal clip. But we’re not a one-man team,” Pullium said of Morris. “We can kind of get by when he’s not scoring. But when he’s scoring and we’re hitting on all cylinders, it just takes our team to a whole other level.”
The Colonels went on a 12-0 run to build the buffer to 52-29 with 2:35 to go in the third. Blundo called a timeout and insisted his team remain focused and keep battling. The ‘Canes did and got back to 52-40 on a DeMonaco 3-pointer to open the fourth.
“We’re both capable of making 10-0 or 12-0 runs. I think we both did that,” Pullium said. “I told them it’s not time to celebrate. This game is not over with. Let’s continue to keep playing and weather the storm and we did that.”
Farah was the only New Castle player to foul out, doing so 59 seconds into the final frame.
The ‘Canes lose John Brown, DeMonaco, Farah, Stewart and Geno Stone to graduation. Stone, an Iowa football recruit who came in averaging a team-high 16.7 points a game, was limited to just four markers.
“The seniors, to their credit, they did all the things that you need to do in order to uphold the standard here,” Blundo said. “Forget the wins, it’s the other things that matter to me and they’ve done it well.”
Blundo addressed the seniors in the locker room after the game by saying, “When you take these uniforms off for the last time, seniors, you’re forever a Red Hurricane. It’s for life.”
The ‘Canes captured the program’s 11th WPIAL championship last month. But the team developed a great deal from November to the final buzzer Saturday.
“They closed the gap from being not very to being a really good basketball team,” Blundo said of his team. “We shot the ball really well all year and we didn’t today. But that doesn’t change how I feel about this season. We didn’t play very many bad games this year.”