NEW CASTLE —
Tomorrow marks the third meeting this season between the New Castle and Seneca Valley high school basketball teams.
It is by far the biggest.
The Red Hurricane battles the Raiders in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals at 7 p.m. at Ambridge High, with the winner playing for the ultimate prize — WPIAL gold — on Saturday.
The teams squared off twice during the Section 3 regular season, with the ’Canes (24-0) posting a pair of wins — 79-45 on the road and 75-52 at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House in the rematch.
“I think when you play a team three times, there’s a familiarity aspect,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “It works both ways.
“Our guys, they get it. They know that basketball is basketball. What you’ve done the first two times is completely insignificant on any given night. They know that Seneca Valley is a good basketball team and we’ll have to play well to win.”
The winner advances to the WPIAL championship game against the survivor of the Hampton-North Allegheny contest at 9 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center. The Hampton-North Allegheny matchup is another Section 3 rematch, with the home team winning each time.
The Raiders (17-7) have lost the last three meetings with New Castle, which is ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 5 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg.
“This is just like a section game,” said Seneca Valley coach Victor Giannotta, who is in his ninth season at the helm. “Neither of us have an advantage, you throw out those first two games and go play.”
The ’Canes are gunning for the program’s ninth district championship and second consecutive. Last year, they claimed the Class AAA title over Hampton before both team’s were realigned into Section 3 this year.
But there’s still business to take care of before making reservations for Saturday’s championship game.
“That’s one thing our guys have done well is to stay focused on the task at hand,” Blundo said. “They’ll have to play very well (tomorrow). We need to stay focused on Seneca Valley and only Seneca Valley.”
Seneca Valley is bidding for its first district title in school history. In fact, the Raiders were just 9-39 in Giannotta’s first three years as coach.
New Castle and Seneca Valley clinched PIAA berths with each team’s quarterfinal-round win. The top-seeded ’Canes breezed past two-time defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion Gateway, 87-55. The 12th-seeded Raiders knocked off fourth-seeded Upper St. Clair.
“That was a situation where you lose that one and you lose another opportunity possibly to extend your season,” Blundo said of the quarterfinal contest. “We’re glad to know we’ve clinched that spot and now we’re focused on the next game which is Seneca Valley.”
The Raiders had to grind out a win over the Panthers. Seneca Valley led 6-0 after the first period and 17-10 at the break.
Giannotta, who is assisted by former Laurel head coach Joe Venasco, acknowledged what effect the experience playing against a team like New Castle has on a squad.
“Playing against teams like New Castle, or Hampton or North Allegheny prepares you well for the postseason,” he said. “We played a lot of man-to-man against Upper St. Clair and that helped us in that game.”
Easton Bazzoli, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, leads Seneca Valley at 15.5 points a game.
“He’s a very good player that creates matchup problems for us,” Blundo said of Bazzoli. “He’s one of the better players in our league; he can shoot it, he’s got a good pull-up jumper and he’s an all-around player.”
Ryan McCauley, a 6-3 senior forward, is next at 12.5 points a contest. He led Seneca Valley in scoring with 21 points in the win over USC and had 21 in the 72-41 first-round verdict over Central Catholic.
“McCauley has been really consistent for them all year, giving them 12 or 13 (points) every night,” Blundo said. “He’s a big, strong kid and he’s effective.”
Alex Snyder leads the team in rebounding at seven a game. He paced the Raiders with 12 points against New Castle at the Field House.
“He’s a big, big body kid for them,” Blundo said. “He’s got good post moves down low and he rebounds well.
“For a kid his size, he has good feet. When you have to post-defend, sometimes it changes the way you guard a team.”
Shawn Anderson, a 6-3 senior guard/forward and Navy recruit, paces New Castle in scoring at 20.4 points a game. He’s second only in the county in that category to Neshannock’s Ernie Burkes (21.1 ppg.).
Anderson is averaging 8.4 rebounds, three assists and 2.5 steals a game. He’s scored 48 total points in the two playoff games this year.
“Shawn is just a complete basketball player,” Giannotta said. “He’s the leader of the team.”
Malik Hooker, a 6-2 junior guard/forward, is next at 17.3 points, eight rebounds, three steals and 2.7 assists a game. Hooker poured in a career-high 29 points in the win at the Field House over Seneca Valley.
“He had a really great game against us at New Castle; he’s tough to contain,” Giannotta said.
Brandon Domenick, a 5-9 senior point guard and Gannon recruit, chips in 9.4 markers a matchup along with 56 3-pointers. Anthony Richards, a 5-9 junior guard, also tallies 9.4 points a matchup to go with a county-best 61 3-pointers.
“They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen in the last 25 years,” Giannotta said. “Every accolade they get, they deserve. They’re respectful and they play the game the right way.
“They’re a terrific basketball team.”
Giannotta knows the recipe to knocking off the ’Canes is the same for any school. But 24 teams have failed to execute it to this point.
“We’ll have to play almost a seamless basketball game,” Giannotta said. “We need to eliminate their runs, the 12-2 and 14-2 runs. And we’ll have to try to be really strong on the defensive end.”
(For more on the strength of Section 3, check out today’s blog on The Bounce.)