NEW CASTLE —
The New Castle High boys basketball team is in familiar territory — against a familiar team.
New Castle knocked off that team — North Allegheny — twice during the WPIAL Section 3-AAAA regular season. At 6 p.m. tomorrow at Slippery Rock University, New Castle will have an opportunity to complete the hat trick when the teams battle in the second round of the PIAA playoffs.
The ’Canes (27-0) defeated the Tigers 88-43 on the road and 74-58 at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House. It’s a battle of the two highest-scoring teams in the WPIAL in Class AAAA. New Castle leads the district in offensive average per game at 79.1 and North Allegheny (22-4) is next at 71.3.
“People think they’re just a 3-point shooting team,” ’Canes coach Ralph Blundo said. “They scored 84 points against State College (on Saturday) making just five total 3s.
“They’ll get to the rim and finish, and they guard well. They’ve had a really good year.”
Last year, New Castle faced Montour in the second round, a rematch from a regular season matchup. The Spartans posted a 50-43 decision that night.
New Castle won its PIAA playoff opener Saturday with a 68-48 triumph over Gateway, while the Tigers advanced with an 84-76 decision over the Little Lions.
At stake is a chance at more history for New Castle, with a shot to set the program's mark for consecutive victories. The mark stands at 27, set in the 2001-2002 season and equaled last year before the ’Canes fell in the second round of the state playoffs to Montour. The ’Canes made history in the WPIAL championship game March 2. They won their second consecutive district championship and became the first program in WPIAL history, regardless of classification, to claim consecutive crowns in different classifications. And they did it by rolling through the season undefeated to that point.
“I really think that stuff is for another day,” Blundo said of the streak. “That’s for the postseason. We’re not playing the game to break single-season records that were made by previous teams.
“The last reason we want to win this game is because it would be our 28th win. It’s very low on our list. The guys have no idea about it, nor do they care. Those are all things where you reflect on it after the season.”
North Allegheny coach Dave DeGregorio knows what his team is up against after facing New Castle twice in the regular season.
“They’re a really good basketball team,” said DeGregorio, who is in his ninth season as the coach. “They’ve got all five starters that can score. They’re very hard to guard. They defend really well and they get it going really well.
“New Castle rebounds it well, too. I’d like to say that they have a weakness, but I just don’t see one.”
Playing North Allegheny is like New Castle looking at itself in a mirror. The ’Canes have scored 80 points or more 14 times this season, compared to six times for North Allegheny.
“What makes them so dangerous is I believe they’re the best offensive team we’ve played all year,” Blundo said. “They can really get it going from the three-point line and with the dribble.
“They’ve had many games where they’ve had 13, 14 or 15 3s. Both teams like to use the dribble drive and we’re both good at it. They did it long before we did it. When you have guys that can do it with the dribble and the shot, that makes it a tough offense to guard.”
The first meeting between the teams, despite its hyped nature, was over before it started. Both teams came in 11-0, but the ’Canes built a 28-8 lead after the first quarter and 50-24 at the break in front of an overflow crowd on the Tigers’ home floor.
“We just clicked on all cylinders that night,” Blundo said. “We made some 3s early.”
Said DeGregorio of that first loss, “I don’t think that game is a motivational factor at all for us. They really let that game go right after it ended and moved on to the next game. New Castle got us that night; they popped us pretty good.”
State College built a 23-5 first-quarter lead Saturday before North Allegheny mounted a rally. DeGregorio recognizes the importance of not falling into a similar hole.
“I think the first four minutes are important,” he said. “(A slow start) is going to happen at times; it could go in your favor or against you.
“New Castle is a little bit harder to defend when they get ahead, though. When someone gets up on us like that, our guys will still play hard. We won’t get down.”