SLIPPERY ROCK — The rematch didn’t go positively for the New Castle High boys basketball team.
Hickory started strong from the perimeter and Donald Whitehead helped lead the charge.
The Red Hurricane couldn’t climb out of an early 13-point hole en route to a 58-48 PIAA Class 4A first-round loss to the Hornets at Slippery Rock University.
New Castle’s season ends at 17-9. It’s the first time in coach Ralph Blundo’s 10-year tenure the ‘Canes have failed to win a game in the state playoffs.
The teams met last year in the state quarterfinals, a 59-48 Hornets victory.
“We caused that,” Blundo said of playing Hickory so early in the PIAA playoffs. “I don’t feel that we did what we were supposed to do in the (WPIAL) semifinals. I thought that was a game that we should have won.
“The residual effect of that was you get Hickory now instead of when you probably should get them. That’s the way it works. Great learning for me and great learning for my team all year long, without a doubt.”
Hornets coach Chris Mele, a 1985 Union High graduate, knew an early test from the ‘Canes was likely.
“We were watching what was happening and we said this could happen. Sure enough, it did,” Mele said. “They’re a quality team. We all know Ralph is a hell of a coach. That’s a great program. Our kids were ready to play.”
Making matters worse for the Hornets (22-4) in preparation for the game was a flu bug going around.
“We had a rough week this week,” Mele said. “My son Peyton was sick with the flu all week. He was out all week. He got to school Thursday, luckily enough. He went a little bit today and had to come home.
“Jaylen Jarvie had the flu. Isaiah’s (Jarzab) knee was swelled up at the beginning of the week. We had to cancel our scrimmage. Things didn’t look good this week. But we were ready to play.”
New Castle never led and the game was tied just once at 2-2. The Hornets ran off a 13-0 run to take control, forging a 15-2 advantage with 2:41 to go in the opening quarter.
“There was a lot of game ahead of us,” Blundo said. “You credit them. That’s a veteran team that came out clicking and making shots. Sometimes you can do a lot right defensively and teams still make the shot.”
Whitehead helped give Hickory the energy early by scoring 14 of his game-best 29 markers in the first frame.
“That’s who he is. If you watch him play, that’s who he is,” Mele said of Whitehead. “That’s nothing out of the ordinary for him to do that. He’s a special player. He’s so quick.
“You don’t realize how quick he is until you play him. I think he got New Castle on their heels a little bit tonight. He’s such a good finisher on the drive.”
Said Blundo of the Hornets’ 13-point run, “The ball went in. They shot it extremely well, many of them contested. That forced us to try to do things defensively that we don’t typically do. You better be pretty good to force us to do that and they are.
“Donald Whitehead made some contested 3s.”
Hickory settled for a 19-8 lead after one. The ‘Canes scored the first four points of the second period to get within 19-12. But the Hornets went on another run to build a 30-14 buffer with 2:49 remaining in the half.
New Castle tried to battle with Hickory and got it back to nine at 32-23. Whitehead, though, drained a key trifecta with just one second left in the half for a 35-23 halftime lead.
The Hornets finished the first half 7 of 14 from behind the arc, compared to 2 for 12 for the ‘Canes.
“Open looks. Anytime you get stops you get confident as a basketball team,” Mele said.
Despite the deficit, New Castle came out energized to open the third quarter. Sheldon Cox and Isaiah Boice each buried 3-pointers to get the ‘Canes back to within 35-29 with 6:14 to go in the stanza.
New Castle had a chance to cut into the deficit even more, but failed to secure a rebound on the other end. Whitehead split a pair of freebies to make it 36-29.
“I think like our guys felt like they were in a good place and they were,” Blundo said. “Because they made a big shot going into halftime. I was really proud of the young kids on my team responding and coming out that way.
“We got that thing to nine, they make that 3 and it’s easy to say oh man, what do you do? But we came out and made back to back 3s. Chris called a good timeout. We had good energy in the huddle and good energy out of the huddle. We get a stop, but we don’t rebound the ball, to no one’s fault. Sometimes that happens.”
Michael Wells’ bucket on the other end got the ‘Canes to within 36-31 with 4:55 to go in the third. It would be as close as New Castle would get the rest of the way.
Wells got into foul trouble in the third. He picked up his third with 1:22 to go in the quarter and his fourth with 1.8 ticks to go in the period. The ‘Canes trailed 45-35 after three quarters.
Wells finished with 10 points. But he fouled out with 5:10 left in the contest and New Castle trailing 51-37.
“Mike is a fierce competitor,” Blundo said. “He wants to win. Sometimes he tries to make some plays and maybe gets called for an offensive foul early.
“Mike competed the whole game. What I’m really proud of him for is he competed hard, picked up his fifth foul and his composure has gotten so much better and that’s why he’s gotten so much better as a player.”
Cox netted a team-best 20 points for the ‘Canes.
“I thought Sheldon did a great job of driving the basketball,” Blundo said. “Our game plan was to get the ball into the paint. I thought we did a better job. They do a really good job of guarding the 3-point line.
“They guard so well that they don’t have to help often. If you can get down hill a little bit you can get to the cup. Sheldon did a good job of driving it. That’s the part of his game we want to see him continue to get better at.”
Said Mele, “He’s a really good player. Tonight, he was able to take the ball to the hoop and score. That opened him up from the 3. I like his game a lot. I believe he played well against us last year as well. He’s a fine young player.”
Hickory advances to meet Huntingdon, a 70-57 winner over Blackhawk, on Tuesday at a time and site to be determined.