Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
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.
A NEW TOURNAMENT
Hampton has won both of its state playoff games by an average of 18.5 points a game. The Talbots reached the quarterfinals with a 67-45 decision over Erie McDowell on Thursday. The game was pushed back a day because of the foul weather that was headed into the region Wednesday.
“I think our team is enjoying playing together,” Lafko said. “We got in some foul trouble in the first half against Erie McDowell.
“In the second half, we were able to continue to play some guys that had to sit. The foul trouble wasn’t an issue as much in the second half.”
The ’Canes have had much tighter outcomes in the state playoffs. New Castle beat Bethel Park, 71-64, in the first round and section foe North Allegheny in the second round, 64-54.
“I think we’re playing well and relaxed,” Blundo said. “We’re playing good, hard-nosed basketball.”
This will be the first time either school has played in Bethel Park’s new gymnasium, which opened in January, 2012. Seating capacity is 2,450 and the game is expected to be sold out. Bethel Park earned the right to host the game after officials representing the Palumbo Center, Sewall Center (Robert Morris), Slippery Rock University and Ambridge all reported their facility wasn’t available for today’s matchup.
“We’re looking forward to playing in a different venue,” Lafko said. “We haven’t played there and I don’t think they have, either. That should be a different scenario for everyone.
“It should be a good game, it’s two very good teams. It’s coming a little earlier than what it has been in recent years because a few years ago we could have met in the western final. This is a great testament to the success of these teams.”
Said Blundo, “Wherever they tell us to play is fine. Both teams have played in big games before. (Today) will be no different.”
Ryan Luther, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, paces the Hampton attack. Luther, a Pitt recruit, is the program’s all-time leading scorer with over 1,900 points. He leads the team in scoring at about 22 points a game.
“Ryan does everything well,” Blundo said. “He’s a great all-around player. Very few can do what he does on both ends.
Luther, who missed the first meeting with the ’Canes because of an ankle injury, tossed in a game-best 28 points in the rematch at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House. He followed that up with 21 tallies in the WPIAL championship game, the lone Talbots player to reach double figures that night.
“Ryan does so much for us offensively and defensively,” Lafko said. “His versatility allows him to play in the post and out on the perimeter.
“He’ll take advantage of things that he gives us with his versatility.”
Collin Luther, a 6-7 senior guard/forward and Ryan’s brother, went over 1,000 career points on a fourth-quarter foul shot Thursday against Erie McDowell. He’s receiving Division I looks from Albany, Columbia, Winthrop and Fairfield.
“Collin really does a great job of controlling the game,” Blundo said. “He’s a big, strong kid and he can shoot it; he’s a good finisher.
“Collin presents tough matchups for teams.”
David Huber, a 6-2 junior guard, is getting Division I attention from Columbia, Penn and Navy.
“He’s long and he can really play,” Blundo said. “We’ve done a good job on him at times, but he’s also hurt us at times.
“We have to contain him and keep him off the glass.”
The Talbots are averaging 72.5 points a game and giving up 50.3.
“It depends on who they’re playing,” Blundo said of Hampton’s offensive style. “They can play uptempo. They’re a versatile team.
“They’ll do different things defensively, a combination of different zones. They’ll play man-to-man, they’ll use fullcourt pressure. Their philosophy is to play whatever defense will get them the success they’re looking for.”
Malik Hooker, a 6-1 senior guard/forward and Ohio State University football recruit, propels New Castle’s attack with a county-best 22.8 points a game. He has 1,589 career markers as well.
“Malik is the best athlete in the WPIAL,” Lafko said. “He is playing very good basketball right now and he can hurt you in many ways.”
Hampton held Hooker to a season-low six points in the district championship game. Hooker has rebounded from that output with 49 points in the state playoffs.
Anthony Richards, a 5-8 senior guard, backs up Hooker’s effort at 12.8 markers a matchup. Richards, a West Virginia Wesleyan recruit, has 1,080 career points.
“Anthony is such a hard competitor,” Lafko said. “He’s tough to defend.”
Richards has 94 3-pointers on the season and 297 for his career. Both are school records.
Richards is just three 3-pointers shy of becoming just the fourth player in WPIAL history with at least 300 3-pointers. Highlands’ Micah Mason (2008-2012) leads the way with 346 and Chartiers Valley’s T.J. McConnell (2006-10) is second at 334. Mike Colbert, another Chartiers Valley (1994-98) product rounds out the group with 302.
McConnell is currently playing at Arizona for Blackhawk High graduate Sean Miller.
“It’s just repetition,” Blundo said of Richards’ perimeter success. “He takes thousands and thousands of shots every day on the shooting machine. Even when he misfires, he’s able to go on to the next play and put it behind him.”
New Castle’s Stew Allen, a 6-3 senior center and Duquesne football recruit, is next at 10.6 points a game. Stew’s twin brother Drew, a 6-0 senior guard, contributes 10.2 tallies a tilt. Stew is a Robert Morris University football recruit.
FINDING A WAY
Stew Allen delivered for the ’Canes in the championship game with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He added seven rebounds.
“Stew had a great championship game for them,” Lafko said. “He finished around the basket and gave them a lift.
“Drew Allen is tough on opponents, too. He makes plays out on the perimeter.”
The ’Canes are averaging 73.8 points a game, which is tops in Quad-A among WPIAL teams while allowing 49.8 markers.
Blundo knows his team must play its usual brand of basketball to advance to the state semifinals.
“We have to play really good defense. Good, tough, New Castle defense,” he said. “We need to generate some offense from our defense.
“We have to get easy buckets and contain Ryan Luther. Rebounding will be a key, too. We have to rebound really well. We’ve only been outrebounded two or three times this year, and that’s big considering our size.”
The winner advances to meet the survivor of the Abington-Martin Luther King matchup Tuesday at a time and site to be announced.