NEW CASTLE —
Mention Lower Merion and think of Kobe Bryant.
Yeah, that Kobe Bryant.
Same guy who went straight from high school to the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers after starting four years for the suburban Philadelphia high school and earning Pennsylvania Player of the Year honors. Same guy who took R&B singer Brandy Norwood to his senior prom in 1996. Same guy who supplies boxes of his sneakers to his alma mater.
So what does this year’s team have to do with a guy who graduated 17 years ago?
Well, nothing. And everything.
Kobe won’t be on the floor tonight — he remains a bit busy with the Lakers — but the team that laces up his sneaks will be similarly tall, fast and extremely talented.
Enter New Castle, a team with quite the story of its own, a team determined to make up for what it lacks in size with an unbeaten record and the heart of a champion.
The Red Hurricane will put up its 29-0 against the 28-3 mark of Lower Merion at 7 p.m. at Williamsport High School in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals.
Loser goes home. Winner plays for a state championship in Hershey.
Big game. Big dreams. And one very big opponent.
The Aces (28-3) boast such size as Yohanny Dalembert (6-foot-8, senior, forward), B.J. Johnson (6-7, senior, guard) and Justin McFadden (6-3, junior, guard/forward) in the starting lineup.
New Castle does have in its favor three wins over a bigger Hampton team which has similar size.
“They’re a really good basketball team; a typical eastern Pennsylvania team,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said of Lower Merion. “They’re long, athletic in the post and they can shoot it.
“They are comparable to Hampton in the sense of their height; they’re similar in that regard.”
Blundo said there is a contrast between a team like the Talbots’ size and the Aces’ size.
“We’ve played against size all year,” he said. “This is a different kind of size. This is athletic size.
“We played against long kids, but they may not have had athletic feet. We’ll have to improvise where we need to.”
New Castle, ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 4 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, is bidding for its first state championship. Lower Merion is ranked No. 2 in the state.
The ’Canes’ last visit to the state semifinals didn’t end so well, dropping a 65-47 verdict to Uniontown in the 2001-2002 season.
“It’s very special getting to the semifinals,” Blundo said. “I know a lot of coaches that worked every bit as hard as I’ve worked and my staff and they never had the opportunity to get there.
“I just know it doesn’t happen all the time. So much has to fall into place. We have great kids who are willing to work hard. This doesn’t happen all the time.”
New Castle reached the semifinals with an 80-70 win over Erie Cathedral Prep, while Lower Merion advanced with a 63-62 decision over Harrisburg. The Aces trailed 51-43 with less than four minutes to play before rallying.
“Grit, refuse-to-lose attitude. Togetherness,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer told pennlive.com after the game of capping the comeback. “Knowing that we have 10 seniors on this team that would run through a brick wall to keep their season going.”
Attempts to reach Downer for comments were unsuccessful.
The winner moves on to the state championship game to meet the survivor of the Chester-St. Joseph’s Prep matchup at 8 p.m. Saturday at the GIANT Center in Hershey.
Despite having an unbeaten record, Blundo recognizes his team might not be the favorite going in.
“Sure, I think so,” replied Blundo if his team might be viewed as an underdog. “All you have to do is look at the east winning nine of the last 10 state championships.”
NEW CASTLE —
Mention Lower Merion and think of Kobe Bryant.
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