WEXFORD — The New Castle High basketball team’s reign atop the WPIAL’s Class 4A classification came to a screeching, abrupt end Wednesday night.
The Red Hurricane, the three-time defending district champion, went scoreless the final 3:22 of regulation as Belle Vernon finished the game on an 11-0 run and advanced to its first district championship contest since 1978 with a 56-46 semifinal win at North Allegheny High School. New Castle shot just 18 for 69 (26 percent) from the floor and an abysmal 7 for 44 (15 percent) from 3-point distance.
“The biggest thing was that we’re obviously disappointed, but we have to understand how to handle losing just like you have to handle winning,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “It’s no one’s fault. The ball didn’t go in enough. I think it’s important to handle it right and they will.”
After trailing since the first quarter, New Castle finally broke through when freshman Isaiah Boice was fouled after scoring a basket and converted the three-point play to give the ‘Canes a 46-45 lead. It was the last points New Castle would score in the game.
“We got consecutive stops and then they got a big, huge offensive rebound that was a bit of a gut-punch,” Blundo said of Thomas Hepple’s putback to give Belle Vernon a 47-46 lead. “That hurt. We don’t score on the other end and they go up three. We had opportunities, but it just didn’t go in. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. That’s the tough unknown of sports. That’s why we don’t worry about it that much and don’t talk about it that much because it’s not really a controllable. The other things are. We did some controllable things wrong tonight and in a close game, we paid the price.”
Losing by seven at halftime, New Castle came out of the locker room firing, ripping off six straight points and forcing Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino into a timeout. The two teams traded baskets the rest of the third quarter before junior Sheldon Cox nailed a 3-pointer to get within one at 40-39 to end the frame.
In the fourth, Boice went on a personal 5-0 run as the ‘Canes took the lead. However, turnovers and missed shots for New Castle turned into free throws and layups for Belle Vernon, which capitalized the victory with a slam dunk at the buzzer for the final score.
New Castle’s Michael Wells scored a team-high 18 points to go along with eight rebounds. Boice added 14 and Cox had 10. Donny Cade scored four points off the bench, secured 13 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass.
Salvino, in his second year after coaching 34 years at Monessen, said his teams’ 3-2 zone tried to push New Castle farther away from 3-point line.
“New Castle is New Castle,” Salvino said. “They’re good regardless. You don’t have to win championships to see how good that team is. To get back to the Pete (Peterson Events Center) with this group, this is my second year at Belle Vernon, I told them at the beginning that I thought we had something special and they showed me that they do.”
Belle Vernon will play Highlands, a 54-45 winner over Blackhawk in Wednesday’s other semifinal, in the Class 4A title game 1 p.m. Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. New Castle will be idle until next weekend’s state tournament.