By Ron Poniewasz Jr. and Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News
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.”
Syracuse University recruit B.J. Johnson leads the way for Lower Merion. Johnson is averaging 16.3 points a game and has just under 50 3-pointers.
“He’s a do-everything guard for them,” Blundo said. “He’s one of the top players in the country, not just in Pennsylvania.
“He will be a load to handle and he can score so many different ways.”
Johnson rolled his ankle twice late in the game against Harrisburg. But he still delivered the go-ahead three-point play on a dunk and free throw for a 61-59 lead with less than 20 seconds to go. Johnson, who finished with 14 points, took a pass on a backdoor cut to convert the jam.
“He looked pretty good on that dunk,” said Blundo of Johnson in reply to a possibly gimpy Johnson. “An athlete of his caliber, at 80 percent, is better than a lot of athletes at 100 percent; but he’s healthy.”
Johnson is active on the defensive end as well. He jumps the passing lanes and gets deflections that ultimately result in forced turnovers.
“Johnson is really good defensively and when he’s in a stance, he’s really long; he’s also quicker in that stance,” Blundo said. “He’s a superb Division I athlete.”
Raheem Hall, a 6-2 senior guard and slasher, tossed in a game-high 16 points for the Aces in the quarterfinals against the Cougars.
“Hall is really athletic,” Blundo said. “He can score every way possible; he isn’t talked enough about and he can really hurt you in many ways.
“He is active and a good all-around player. I think he may have been the difference for them against Harrisburg.”
Dalembert is a triple threat for the Aces. He had 12 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks against Harrisburg.
“Dalembert is a strong post player,” Blundo said. “He plays off the glass and he blocks a ton of shots.
“It’s not easy to get a triple double in high school, but he’s always around it.”
Dalembert is the younger half-brother of Samuel Dalembert, a 10-year NBA veteran now competing with the Milwaukee Bucks.
JaQuan Johnson, a 5-10 junior point guard, also netted 12 markers against the Cougars. He’s a vocal player on the floor as well.
“He’s their heartbeat,” Blundo said. “He’s really crafty with the ball and he can go off the dribble.
“JaQuan Johnson guards well defensively; he’s just an extraordinary player.”
Corey Sherman, a 6-0 sophomore guard, provides added scoring for Lower Merion off the bench.
“He’s a really good shooter, a spot-up shooter,” Blundo said. “He only needs a little bit of space and he doesn’t play like a sophomore.”
GETTING IT DONE
Shawn Anderson, a 6-3 senior guard/forward and Navy recruit, directs the New Castle offense. Anderson notches a team-best 20.3 points a game, which is good for second in the county. Ernie Burkes paces area scorers at 21.1 points a contest.
Anderson also contributes eight rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals a game. He collected 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting against the Ramblers in the quarterfinals with five rebounds and three assists.
“Shawn plays consistent night in and night out for us,” Blundo said. “He has a consistent work ethic with a consistent focus. When you push the game consistently the same way, you get consistent results and that’s what Shawn gets.”
Said a determined Anderson after Saturday’s win, “It’s your will to win. We want to be state champions. We’re sick of hearing that the east is better than the west and we can’t compete with them. Maybe we will lose the next game. Who knows. At least we put ourselves in the best opportunity to win the game and that’s what playing so hard does for you. We’ll be ready.”
Malik Hooker, a 6-2 junior guard/forward, backs up Anderson’s effort at 16.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 2.8 assists a contest. He scored a team-high 23 points against Erie Cathedral Prep.
Anthony Richards, a 5-9 junior guard, posts 10 points a game, while cashing in a county-best 79 3-pointers. Brandon Domenick, a 5-9 senior point guard and Gannon recruit, follows with 9.2 tallies a matchup to go with 67 3-pointers.
Domenick holds the program’s all-time mark for 3-pointers made with 205 and Richards is right behind with 201.
Blundo acknowledged his team will have to stick to its regular keys to find success.
“Lower Merion’s best offense is when the ball is on the glass,” Blundo said. “We have to box out and keep them from getting extra opportunities.
“We need to stay in front of them and contest shots. We’ll need to execute on the offensive end, too.”
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