NEW CASTLE —
Ring the bell.
The New Castle and Hampton high boys basketball teams are ready to square off for one final round this season.
In a game fans are referring to as “Rocky IV,” the state’s western Quad-A heavyweights are set to battle at 2 p.m. today in the PIAA playoffs at Bethel Park High School, with a berth in the state semifinals on the line. It’s the fourth meeting of the year between the teams, with the Red Hurricane coming away with victories in each of the previous three encounters.
New Castle’s most recent victory over the Talbots, a 55-49 decision, came in the WPIAL championship game March 1 in front of a sold-out A.J. Palumbo Center on the campus of Duquesne University. It secured the program’s 10th WPIAL championship.
“Every time we play, there’s a considerable amount of hype because we’re considered the two best teams on the western side,” said fourth-year ’Canes coach Ralph Blundo. “Each and every game against them, we’ve been able to make a few more plays than them. That’s what it comes down to.”
WHERE THEY STAND
New Castle (28-0) 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 48-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 84 of its last 86 games. The ’Canes also climbed in the national rankings, moving from No. 36 to No. 34 in the USA Today poll.
New Castle captured a pair of Section 3 verdicts over Hampton this year, 58-42 and 66-55. The ’Canes enter this meeting with eight-straight wins over the Talbots.
“I don’t necessarily know that we’re coming in with a chip on our shoulder, said Talbots coach Joe Lafko, who is in his 18th season at the helm. “It’s another basketball game.
“I don’t necessarily know if any team has an advantage because we’ve met so many times. There is a familiarity, but it works for both teams.”
Lafko is a former Westminster College standout.
Hampton (24-4) is ranked No. 2 in the WPIAL and No. 4 in the state.
Blundo agrees with Lafko on the familiarity level each team has coming in to the fourth matchup.
“It’s no more difficult for us than it is for them,” he said. “There’s increased familiarity, and I’m not sure any team can become more familiar with the other by now.
“There’s advantages and disadvantages. You know them. They know you. It’s a really a wash.”
Hampton’s last win over New Castle was a 53-46 regular-season decision Dec. 14, 2010, on the Talbots’ home floor. It’s the only time Blundo has lost to the Talbots in his brief head-coaching career at New Castle.
Hampton’s other loss this year came against North Allegheny in section play. Last year, three of the Talbots’ six setbacks came against the ’Canes.