WEXFORD — As Donny Cade corralled a loose ball and dribbled out the remaining seconds of the game, New Castle High coach Ralph Blundo punctuated the victory with a sideline fist pump.
In a season when the young — but still three-time defending WPIAL champions — Red Hurricane struggled in close games, seventh-seeded New Castle saw its 11-point lead disappear before fighting back for a 56-50 win over Knoch in the WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinals.
“We made some mistakes that helped their cause a little bit, but credit to them,” Blundo said. “I think sometimes culture can carry you through some things and maybe tradition and pedigree can carry you through some things during tough moments and maybe come through in those moments. If I’m proud of anything in this game, it was that moment — to blow an 11-point lead and bounce back and make a couple really big plays.”
The victory moves New Castle into the semifinals against six-seeded Belle Vernon, which upset Quaker Valley. That game will be played at 6 p.m. Wednesday back at North Allegheny.
The sideline show of emotion was a break for the usually reserved 10th-year coach, who has now led New Castle to at least the WPIAL semifinals every year since taking over the programs’ reigns.
“I think the emotions of that was just simply how hard we worked,” Blundo said. “It’s one of those things when you work really hard in the game prep for this game. They’re well coached and do a lot of different things and they’re the most balanced team we’ve played all year. We knew what we were in for. When you win a game after you prepare as hard we did and work as hard as we did over the last two days, it’s just gratifying.”
New Castle, a low seed largely in part because of its 1-3 record in games decided by two points or in overtime, has now won five straight. The young ‘Canes start two sophomores and Isaiah Boice, a freshman who along with junior Sheldon Cox played all 32 minutes.
“They’re young and give me gray hair and they make me crazy sometimes,” Blundo said. “I’m proud of them. There’s all kinds of playoff games to win, but when you win it this way against a veteran group like Knoch, it’s a great win.”
On the floor, Saturday’s contest was a game of runs. New Castle, after taking a 38-27 lead midway through the third quarter, found itself trailing after Knoch’s Scott Fraser nailed a corner 3-pointer to go up 50-49 with 2:10 left in the game, one of five lead changes in the final seven minutes. Out of a timeout after Fraser’s shot, sophomore Michael Wells put the ‘Canes up for good on a turnaround in the lane before teammates Michael Graham and Cox put the game out of reach by making free throws.
Wells scored nine of his 19 points in the final 4:27. He led the team with seven rebounds. Cox also scored 19, knocking down three triples.
“I think Mike is a very, very confident kid,” Blundo said. “We got him the ball in some places where he can be a little more effective. He was struggling from the 3. He made plays down there. To his credit, you look at him he’s a man, but he’s just a boy. He’s 15 years old. When he’s able to do things like that in big moments physically and emotionally, that’s impressive.”
New Castle, after hitting 14 3-pointers in the first round against Mount Pleasant, shot just 6 for 35 from deep on Saturday. However, pressure defense from the ‘Canes forced Knoch into 11 turnovers while the ‘Canes gave the ball away just once.
Knoch struggled in the fourth quarter and for the game from the foul line, hitting just nine of 18 shots from the charity stripe.