SLIPPERY ROCK — The New Castle High boys basketball team had enough in the tank last night.
The Red Hurricane built a 20-point lead with 5:27 to go in regulation and held on.
Freshman Michael Wells poured in a game- and career-high 25 points to lead New Castle to a 74-67 PIAA Class 4A second-round win over Grove City at Slippery Rock University's Morrow Fieldhouse.
New Castle held a 64-44 buffer with 5:27 remaining after Sheldon Cox drained two foul shots.
"They made a couple of big shots and we missed some assignments," 'Canes coach Ralph Blundo said of Grove City's late rally.
"We're a young basketball team. We lost our engagement just a little bit. The margin for error in the state playoffs is so small. If you're not 100 percent engaged in what you're doing, teams will make you pay."
The 'Canes (23-4) will square off against Hickory, an 80-65 winner over Huntingdon, in the Elite 8 on Friday at a time and site to be determined. The Hornets (26-1) are coached by former Union standout Chris Mele. Mele also previously coached the Shenango girls basketball team.
This was the third consecutive season New Castle played at Slippery Rock University in the state playoffs, all against a District 10 opponent. The 'Canes lost two years ago to Erie Strong Vincent and last year to Sharon.
The Eagles (17-10) got as close as 70-64 with 37 seconds to go, but New Castle was able to hang on.
"We changed up a little bit with our halfcourt trap and went to our 1-2-2 halfcourt trap to make sure if we're going to gamble, great. But we're not going to let their press get set up," first-year Grove City coach Chris Kwolek said. "I thought we broke their press extremely well throughout the game."
Kwolek is a former Mohawk High star.
New Castle trailed 34-32 at the half after leading most of the first 16 minutes. The 'Canes led 30-20 with 3:50 left in the half, but Grove City rallied to forge a two-point halftime advantage.
"I just think we played good basketball and we finished around the hoop," Blundo said. "We did some good things execution wise. Then I thought they made some really tough shots. I credit them for that.
"The ball kept going in (for Grove City), even though we were contesting it. They were getting up shots and they were making them."
The teams battled back and forth for the first four minutes of the third quarter. Demetris McKnight delivered a three-point play with 3:53 remaining in the third quarter to put the 'Canes up for good at 42-39.
"You knew that New Castle was going to go on a run at some point," Kwolek said. "Our problem was throughout the entire basketball season we never really played consistently for 32 minutes. Every single one of our games we had a lull in our games.
"My players never back down. It was difficult for 32 minutes and you're going to get that from a New Castle basketball team. Midway through the third quarter, it's still a tie basketball game."
The 'Canes carried a 53-41 lead into the fourth period. McKnight scored all nine of his points in the third.
"I thought he played with great energy at the top of our pressure and then finished," Blundo said of McKnight. "He did some really good things. I was proud of him tonight."
New Castle opened the fourth period on an 11-3 run to build a 64-44 margin. But the 'Canes had a hard time finishing around the hoop, missing shots underneath and the Eagles took advantage.
"There's no bad teams in the state playoffs," Wells said. "Teams can make a run at any time."
Wells helped close out the win, scoring nine of his points in the fourth quarter. He was 11 for 22 from the field with six rebounds.
"I felt like everything was going in," Wells said. "I finished well around the hoop. I got to the hoop a lot more which I haven't done in previous games."
Said Blundo of Wells, "He did a lot of great things tonight. He's still young but he's learning. He's so talented. He made shots and he finished around the hoop. The more engaged he is the better he plays."
Payne Prowell posted 15 points for the 'Canes and Sheldon Cox contributed 11. Prowell paced New Castle with 11 rebounds and four assists, while shooting 6 of 11 from the floor. Cox added six rebounds.
Marcos Cintron netted a team-best 22 points for Grove City. Cintron scored 16 of his points in the first half.
"He's a really confident basketball player and he believes in himself," Blundo said. "He made a bunch of tough pull-up jumpers."
But the 'Canes made it tougher for Cintron to get his points in the second half.
"We let him create in the first half," Kwolek said. "He has such a unique and elevating shot.
"It looked like they were facing him, especially with McKnight. I thought they came out and really face-guarded him around the perimeter. That kind of opened up our driving lanes a little bit. But our shots didn't fall very well."
Prior to taking the job at Grove City, Kwolek was the boys varsity basketball coach at Sharpsville. He's also a teacher in the New Castle Area School District.
"Chris is an excellent basketball coach and a phenomenal teacher in our district," Blundo said. "He's respected by everybody for the effort that he puts in every day."
NEW CASTLE VS. GROVE CITY
PIAA CLASS 4A PLAYOFFS AT SLIPPERY ROCK UNIVERSITY
GROVE CITY (67)
Brady Callahan 2 0-0 6, Caden Mattocks 1 5-5 7, Kade Persinger 7 2-4 18, Marcos Cintron 8 2-4 22, Logan Lutz 4 1-5 9, Michael Brooks 1 0-0 3, Troy Loughry 1 0-0 2. Totals: 24 10-18 67.
NEW CASTLE (74)
Payne Prowell 6 3-5 15, Donte Burnett 3 2-2 8, Sheldon Cox 2 7-10 11, Drew Cox 2 2-3 6, Michael Graham 0 0-0 0, Michael Wells 11 0-0 25, Demetris McKnight 3 3-3 9. Totals: 27 17-23 74.
GROVE CITY 14 20 7 26 — 67
NEW CASTLE 19 13 21 21 — 74
3-point goals — Grove City 7 (Callahan 2, Persinger 2, Cintron 2, Brooks 1), New Castle 3 (Wells 3).