SLIPPERY ROCK — The run toward a state championship is over for the New Castle High boys basketball team.
When the end came, it was shooting woes that led to the Red Hurricane’s demise.
New Castle was just 18 for 53 from the field in dropping a 59-48 PIAA Class 4A quarterfinal-round playoff decision to Hickory in front of an overflow crowd at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Field House last night. The loss was New Castle’s third in the last four visits to SRU, all four meetings coming against a District 10 opponent in the PIAA playoffs.
The ‘Canes, who were decimated by graduation but still managed to win a third-straight WPIAL championship, bow out at 23-5.
The 48 points equals a season low for New Castle. The ‘Canes scored 48 in a 67-48 home loss to Quaker Valley.
“They’re good,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said when asked about being limited to 48 points. “They defended well. We didn’t shoot it great. They made it tougher around the hoop. We didn’t get a lot of second opportunities.”
Hickory coach Chris Mele, a 1985 Union High graduate and former boys basketball star, pointed to his team’s defensive play as the key.
“Containing,” Mele said of the 48 points allowed. “You have to contain when you play them. They have a lot of outside shooters. They’re very streaky.
“The one thing that we said was they’re going to take 3s, we just have to make sure we contest them. For the most part, they didn’t have many looks at a 3 without someone in their face.”
The Hornets (27-1) set a program record for wins in a season. Their reward is a date Monday with Imhotep Charter (24-6) at a time and site to be determined. Imhotep Charter, which is a two-time defending state champion, advanced with a 63-51 win over Bishop McDevitt last night.
“You see what they did to Sharon (last year) and Sharon was phenomenal last year,” Mele said of last year’s 71-35 state championship game victory for Imhotep Charter. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. We’re going to give it our all and we’ll play hard.”
This is the first time Hickory has reached the Final Four since 1995.
Mele acknowledged the respect his program has for Blundo and the New Castle program.
“I told Ralph before the game, the first day when I took this program over, I said if we can get to about 75 or 80 percent of what New Castle has built we’ll be doing something good,” Mele said. “That’s been our measuring stick since day one. We’re nowhere near them, but what a program he has built.
“I know other coaches are trying to emulate what he has done. He is a big-game coach.”
Hickory took the lead for good at 11-10 with 1:43 remaining in the first quarter on a basket by Donald Whitehead. It ignited a 9-0 run that stretched into the second stanza.
“It was good teams playing basketball,” Blundo said of the run. “They made a couple of shots. We had two 3s go in and out and they had two go in. That’s basketball.”
Whitehead scored a game-high 25 points on 7-of-16 shooting.
Hickory held three 10-point leads in the second quarter (22-12, 24-14, 29-19) before settling for a 30-23 buffer at the break.
“We said it’s a seven-point game, we’ve been here before,” Blundo said of his words to the team at halftime. “We just have to keep getting stops because it’s going to be really hard to turn them over. We’re not going to create extra possessions that way. Let’s create them on the offensive glass and we did.”
The ‘Canes contended in the third quarter, closing within three points five times (35-32, 37-34, 39-36, 41-38, 43-40). New Castle had possession of the ball down 45-40, trying to cut it back down to three points. But Whitehead stole the ball.
Whitehead was racing in for a layup and Prowell fouled him hard from behind. Prowell was whistled for an intentional foul, sending Whitehead to the foul line for two freebies. Whitehead made them both with 15.9 ticks to go in the third period.
The Hornets retained possession following the foul shots and Isaiah Jarzab, who transferred from Wilmington, buried a bucket with 14 seconds left in the period to put Hickory up 49-40 going to the final frame.
“You get a momentum play like that, it was definitely one of the momentum plays,” Mele said. “Donald has been doing that all year on the steal.
“He measures them up and he knows when it’s time to do that. He made another big play. I can’t say enough about him. He not only plays great offense, but he’s a heck of a defender.”
Said Blundo of the pivotal nature of the intentional foul, “We turn it over and get an intentional foul on their best free-throw shooter. They make two (free throws), next thing you know it’s a nine-point game, just that quick. No question that’s where the game swung.”
Jarzab backed up Whitehead’s effort with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
The ‘Canes got it as close as 51-46 with 5:47 to go, but couldn’t climb any closer. Hickory closed the game on an 8-2 run.
Last night’s game between the nearby schools could be the start of a postseason rivalry.
“We’re both young teams,” Blundo said. “They’re equally as young as we are. We’re not going anywhere and I’m sure they’re not either.”
Drew Cox led New Castle with 18 points, including 12 in the second half and eight in the third period. Demetris McKnight was next with 13.
Cox was 7 of 12 from the field with five rebounds, while McKnight was 5 of 11 from the floor to go along with a trio of caroms.
Donte Burnett, Cox and Prowell will graduate.
“You take an inexperienced group of seniors that led this young group to a WPIAL championship and a quarterfinal game, I value them,” Blundo said of his seniors. “I value their presence here over the last three years. I know that their best days as young people and as adults and husbands and fathers are ahead of them. I’m just looking forward to watching them prosper.
“The future is bright for the program. We have some good, young talent. I just need some time away. And they need some time away from me. A five-and-a-half month season is a long time. We all need to restore our souls a little bit.”
NEW CASTLE VS. HICKORY
PIAA CLASS 4A PLAYOFFS AT SLIPPERY ROCK UNIVERSITY
Donald Whitehead 7 10-13 25, Rocco Iacino 1 1-2 3, Peyton Mele 3 2-2 9, Jaylen Jarvie 3 0-2 6, Isaiah Jarzab 5 3-4 14, Bailey Phillips 0 0-0 0, Michael Filardi 1 0-0 2, Matthew Cannone 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 16-23 59.
NEW CASTLE (48)
Payne Prowell 1 0-0 2, Donte Burnett 1 2-2 4, Sheldon Cox 2 2-3 7, Drew Cox 7 4-4 18, Michael Graham 1 0-2 2, Michael Wells 1 0-0 2, Demetris McKnight 5 2-4 13. Totals: 18 10-15 48.
HICKORY 16 14 19 10 — 59
NEW CASTLE 10 13 17 8 — 48
3-point goals — Hickory 3 (Whitehead 1, Mele 1, Jarzab 1), New Castle 2 (S. Cox 1, McKnight 1).