New Castle dealt first loss, perfect ending vanishes

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- New Castle coach Ralph Blundo paced in a hallway separated from the court.

His team lost, 67-63. A few feet away, Lower Merion's student section engulfed the court, celebrating the trip to the PIAA championship the Red Hurricanes wanted so badly.

Everything had gone right this season for New Castle. It was undefeated coming into this PIAA semifinal, nearing the perfect end to a remarkable three-year run.

The players already had entered the locker room. Blundo remained with his coaching staff and a few other supporters in that hallway, not quite ready to join the team.

Somebody mentioned bad shots. Another said something about long rebounds. Somebody else offered an explanation of being on the wrong end of an ebb-and-tide-type of game.

Whatever the exact reason, New Castle's season was over, an 11-point first-half lead evaporated, a second-half comeback not quite enough, an undefeated ride stopped before the PIAA championship just like a year ago.

"We were outmanned out there," Blundo said.

The game began as promising as the season had been. In building a 26-15 lead, Malik Hooker, Shawn Anderson and Anthony Richards were forcing turnovers and converting on their side of the court. The crowd took notice, especially after Hooker dunked in traffic, stretching the lead to 11 minutes into the second quarter.

The game felt like it could've ended there. Here was New Castle (30-1), running the way it wanted. Here was the crowd, loud and under New Castle's trance.

But Lower Merion's B.J. Johnson responded with a 3-pointer and made another basket. So did JaQuan Johnson. And now, New Castle started turning the ball over. That's what helped contribute to a 14-2 run, and a 29-28 halftime lead for Lower Merion.

The Aces had plenty of size, with just enough speed thrown in to the mix. Yohanny Dalembert grabbed rebounds, many offensive, and scored 15 points. Johnson led the team with 24 points.

"I think they are a great group of athletes," Blundo said. "When they picked it up, it was a considerable difference."

Another Hooker dunk, this one in the third quarter, reinvigorated New Castle enough to go on an 11-0 run and tie the score, 43-43. But Dalembert, Johnson and Raheem Hall kept scoring for Lower Merion. The Aces forced 21 turnovers and outrebounded New Castle, 26-13.

Hooker, a junior, led the Red Hurricanes with 19 points and Anderson, a Naval Academy recruit, added 17 in his final high school game.

When he finally entered the locker room, Blundo said he told his players to not worry about the talk of being the "greatest team" in the PIAA that surrounded them the past several weeks. He told them to think of their legacy as the best at New Castle and for the way they played together this season and the past two.

After a few minutes, you could hear applause from the inside.

Soon after, the players trudged out in their warm-up sweats toward the bus. Lower Merion's celebration had long before subsided.

Parents and fans waited and consoled them, clapping as each player exited. The ride back to New Castle surely would be long, but Blundo wanted them to spend the time remembering their accomplishments as a whole rather than this final game.

"There's not a better group of teammates anywhere," he said.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @mdent05.


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