New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
“You were built for this moment.”
Those were the words of New Castle High basketball coach Ralph Blundo as his team was ready to take the floor against Hampton for the WPIAL Class AAAA title at the A.J. Palumbo Center on the campus of Duquesne University on Saturday night.
“You don’t need to do anything differently. You don’t need to take your game to another level. Just do what you always do. Play Red Hurricane basketball and that will be enough,” said the coach, who was striving for his third consecutive WPIAL championship and 78th consecutive WPIAL victory.
In the end, he was right. The ’Canes didn’t need to do anything differently and the mission was accomplished with a 55-49 victory over Hampton.
Even though the movie ended the way it always does with a New Castle victory, this script was written a little differently and some of the players were in different roles.
The literal interpretation is an attack conducted with great speed and force.
It should, because it is the way the ’Canes often begin their games. Fast starts that usually devastate the opponent.
Not this time.
Instead, it was Hampton, who blitzkrieged New Castle with a 13-2 advantage out of the gate. It was the first and only time the ’Canes got a taste of their own medicine.
How would they handle it? Would they crumble in their biggest game of the year?
Blundo called a timeout. During the timeout, nobody lost his composure. Coach made a few adjustments. He told Drew Allen, who had struggled up to that point, to enter the ball to the elbow instead of the wing to start the offense against Hampton’s zone.
More importantly, the players did not exhibit any panic. They went back onto the floor and executed the plan to perfection. The result was a 14-4 finish to the quarter by the ’Canes.
It’s Blundo’s goal to end each quarter with a bucket. Oftentimes, he will play for the last shot in the period by holding the ball to make sure the ’Canes don’t lose the momentum going into the next stanza.
At the end of the first quarter, Levar Ware put back a missed 3-point attempt to cut the Hampton lead to 17-16. As the shot went in, coach Blundo pumped his fist (almost hitting me in the face), while the ’Canes sprinted to the bench and the crowed went into full explosion.
New Castle has notched 26 wins this year, but its most important win may have occurred last May before the WPIAL, when the steering committee ruled that Ware would be eligible to play this season.
Ware had spent some time at a West Virginia school as a ninth-grader and a question arose about the eight-semester eligibility rule. Even though Ware is not a starter, all the coaches would agree that the ’Canes would not have enjoyed this unprecedented success without the contributions of the big man in the middle. His bucket at the end of the first quarter was huge.
If there is one play that might have determined the fate of this game, it was the basket scored by Anthony Richards with one second left in the first half.
The ’Canes led 29-26. They were taking the ball out of bounds under their own basket. Hampton scouted New Castle well and it knew in this situation the ’Canes liked to lob the ball up to Malik Hooker in the paint, so he could tip it in the basket.
Richards is a basketball player through and through. He knows the game. He sees the court through the eyes of a player, who watched his two brothers, Chris and David, who both played at New Castle, and his father, David, an ex-player and now an assistant coach.
When he saw the Talbots’ defense was face-guarding Malik, he knew the lob would not work.
So what did he do?
He banked the ball off of the back of the Hampton defender, in essence passing the ball to himself, which he promptly shot and scored.
Without breaking stride, he raced off of the court into the locker room followed by his teammates.
Explosion No. 2 from the New Castle faithful. New Castle 31, Hampton 26.
Even though Richards was held to seven points for the game, his play at the end of the half was a back-breaker for the Talbots.
FROM PONY TO HORSE
As the season progresses, there always is one unexpected player, who steps up and provides quality minutes for his team.
Even though he did not score in the championship game, the play of junior guard Robert “Pony” Natale cannot be overlooked. He defended — he rebounded and did not turn the ball over as the championship dogfight continued one possession at a time.
His points against Latrobe in the first round of the playoffs and his two 3-pointers against Bethel Park were as big as any points scored in the ’Canes’ run to a championship.
His father, Bob Natale, is affectionately known as “Horse.”
There is no game or shot too big for Jake McPhatter. With his father, Jake Sr., lying in a hospital bed in Youngstown, Ohio, after undergoing surgery following a serious automobile accident, Jake Jr. missed his first three shots of the game.
That type of start would have damaged most players’ confidence. But with New Castle’s leading scorers Hooker and Richards struggling to score, somebody needed to pick up the slack.
His confidence never shaken, McPhatter proceeded to nail his next three shots — two huge 3-pointers and a reverse layup to start the second half. It was vintage McPhatter.
SUPERMAN FORGOT HIS CAPE
To some people, Hooker is known as Superman. The fictional character, who was “faster than a speeding bullet; who was more powerful than a locomotive; and who could leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
But for the first time this year, Superman did not bring his cape to the game. Hooker, who was averaging 23.4 points a game coming in, scored a season-low six points.
When some superstars don’t get their points, they pout and sulk. Not Hooker, who will be matriculating at Ohio State University in the fall.
He elevated the other facets of his game. He defended like a mad dog guarding his last piece of meat. He grabbed double-digit rebounds and his assists produced many of the 18 points scored by Stew Allen.
No New Castle game is complete without a signature dunk by Hooker.
Who can forget the takeoff from the foul line dunk against Lower Marion last year that made SportsCenter? How about the alley-oop slam against Bethel Park that also received ESPN acclaim? What about the tomahawk facial he gave to the poor kid from Kiski?
When Hooker slammed on a breakaway to give New Castle a seven-point lead with three minutes left in the game, the crowd exploded for the third time.
This time the explosion was the death knell for Hampton.
The Allen boys, Stew and Drew, are twin brothers.
All the sports writers before the game were talking about a set of twins that would lead their team to victory.
The writers were right.
A set of twins did lead their team to the championship, but the writers had the wrong twins.
The Luther twins — Ryan with 21 points and Collin — played great games and battled like warriors, but the Allen boys were a little better and a little tougher.
Final score: Allen twins 32 points, Luther twins 26 points. Stew and Drew were marvelous.
Stew scored eight points in the first quarter when the ’Canes were struggling. He battled 6-foot-8 Ryan Luther, a University of Pittsburgh recruit, all night for position on the low block. The only thing he didn’t accomplish during the championship game was his dunk attempt at the buzzer and for that, he continues to be ribbed by his teammates. Stew finished with 18 huge points to lead the ’Canes in scoring.
After a rough start, Drew steered the New Castle offense from his point-guard position. The ’Canes only had eight turnovers for the game due in large part to Drew’s steady hand.
Drew finished the game with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and two gigantic 3-pointers.
With New Castle, it is always a team effort. They do everything together.
In its championship effort Saturday, the team was the same as always. However, some of the players were in different roles.
Hampton learned even if you flip the script, the ending is still the same — New Castle, WPIAL champs for the third year in a row.
(Larry Kelly, a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, is an assistant basketball coach at New Castle).