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’Canes to face another familiar foe
Mar 11, 2014
By Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News

The New Castle High basketball team is making some familiar stops on the PIAA playoff road.

Next up: North Allegheny.

Last year, the section rivals met in the second round of the state playoffs at Slippery Rock University with New Castle prevailing, 57-46. This time, the ’Canes (27-0) will look to complete their second-straight three-game season sweep of the WPIAL Section 3 rivals at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Ambridge High School.

“They will challenge you,” said fourth-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo of North Allegheny. “They have good players and a great coach. Every time we play them, we have to play well to win; if we don’t, we won’t win.”

Blundo owns a 103-10 mark with New Castle. His career mark is 129-12, which includes a 26-2 record in one year (1998-99) guiding George Junior Republic in Grove City.

Attempts to reach Tigers coach Dave DeGregorio for comments were unsuccessful. DeGregorio is 192-61 in 10 seasons at North Allegheny and 361-188 in 22 years overall.

New Castle won last year’s regular season matchups 88-43 and 74-58 before the tighter decision in the state playoffs. This year, the ’Canes conquered the Tigers 63-41 and 64-48 in the section tilts.

New Castle is ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 2 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg. The ’Canes have won 47-straight games against WPIAL teams dating back to a 50-43 loss to Montour in the second round of the state playoffs in the 2011-2012 season. New Castle has won 83 of its last 85 games. The ’Canes also climbed in the national rankings, moving from No. 36 to No. 34 in the USA Today poll.

North Allegheny (22-4) lost five games last year and four this year, all have come against New Castle and Hampton. The ’Canes were responsible for five of those setbacks by an average of 22 markers a matchup.

“They’re just a really good basketball team,” Blundo said. “There’s a good chance if New Castle and Hampton are both in Triple-A that North Allegheny is back-to-back WPIAL Quad-A champions.

“We’ve had some success against North Allegheny. We know they’re very good and their kids play hard. All five of their guys on the floor can score. That’s what makes them so tough to defend. Both teams are familiar with each other.”

New Castle reached the second round with a 71-64 win over Bethel Park. It was the first game for the ’Canes since a 55-49 win over the Talbots in the WPIAL championship game a week earlier and the second time they topped the Black Hawks in the postseason. New Castle rolled past Bethel Park in the WPIAL playoffs, 73-46.

“I thought we played really hard,” Blundo said of the win over Bethel Park. “We didn’t finish (high-percentage shots) real well that night. That was a little uncharacteristic of us, but it’s nothing we’re concerned about. We’ve made those type of shots all season.”

Though the final outcome was close, New Castle held a 51-31 lead going to the fourth frame. But the ’Canes couldn’t put the game away at the foul line, going just 10 of 21 in the stanza and 18 of 33 for the game.

“It’s been off and on this year,” Blundo said of the foul shooting. “We’ll either shoot 55 percent for the game or 85 percent; I’m not sure why. That’s kind of how it’s been.

“I have confidence my guys will make them in crucial situations.”

North Allegheny cruised past Altoona, 82-57, in the first round of the state playoffs. Four scorers reached double figures for the Tigers, led by Cole Constantino with 16 points and Joe Mancini with 15. North Allegheny was 32 of 54 from the floor and forced 25 turnovers by the Mountain Lions.

“We’re always trying to get to the basket or shoot a 3,” DeGregorio told the Altoona Mirror after the win over Altoona. “Defensively, we’re going to put pressure on you. We’re going to run to you and see what plays you can make.”

Elijah Zeise, a 6-foot-3 senior guard/forward, paced North Allegheny with 10 points in the loss to New Castle at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House. Zeise, who is averaging 11 points a game, signed a national letter of intent to continue his football career at Pitt and play wide receiver.

“His footwork is excellent,” Blundo said of Zeise. “He’s really good defensively and he’s good at taking charges.

“I’m most impressed with how his offensive game has evolved. He’s really worked at it. That doesn’t just happen.”

Cole Constantino, a 5-10 junior guard, netted a team-high 16 points for the Tigers in Saturday’s win over Altoona. Constantino is averaging 12.5 points a contest.

“He’s another really good player,” Blundo said of Constantino. “You have to contain him; he’s equally good off the dribble.”

Joe Mancini, a 5-10 senior guard, chipped in 15 markers against Altoona. Mancini is leading the team in scoring at 13 markers a matchup.

“Mancini is a great perimeter shooter,” Blundo said. “He can definitely light it up.

“We’ll have to get a hand up on him. He has demonstrated the ability to go off the dribble as well.”

The Tigers are averaging 72.4 points a game and allowing 55.1.

“There’s a lot of similarities between North Allegheny and our team,” Blundo said. “We both do similar things offensively and defensively; both teams play really hard.

“Defensively, they’re predominantly a man-to-man team. They’ve done some things differently that force you to prepare for it.”

Malik Hooker, a 6-1 senior guard/forward and Ohio State University football recruit, guides New Castle’s attack with a county-best 22.9 points a game. He has 1,567 career markers as well.
Hooker rebounded from a six-point performance in the WPIAL championship matchup with a team-high 27 points in the PIAA playoff win over Bethel Park.
Anthony Richards, a 5-8 senior guard, follows Hooker’s effort at 13 tallies a tilt. Richards, a West Virginia Wesleyan recruit, has 1,071 career points.
Richards has 92 3-pointers on the season and 295 for his career. Both are school records.

New Castle’s Stew Allen, a 6-3 senior center and Duquesne football recruit, is next at 10.5 markers a matchup. Stew’s twin brother Drew, a 6-0 senior guard, chips in 10.3 points a game. Stew is a Robert Morris University football recruit.

The ’Canes are averaging 74.2 points a game, which is tops in Quad-A among WPIAL teams. They are surrendering 49.7 markers as well.

Blundo knows the difficulty in defeating a team three times in a season.

“We have to play with great intensity and toughness,” he said of tomorrow’s game. “We have to rebound well and contest their shooters.

“These are all good basketball teams still playing. You can’t afford to make controllable errors and my guys are aware of that. They know why they’ve played all year and what it takes to win.”

New Castle is 5-0 in the playoffs this year, with four of the wins coming by a combined 59 points. The fifth victory, a decision over Kiski, came by 54 — 77-23.

The winner moves on to battle the survivor of the Hampton-Erie McDowell matchup Saturday at a time and site to be determined.
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