New Castle's Malik Hooker started the game Wednesday night with his right wrist and part of his hand covered with tape. It was to protect a sprained wrist he sustained Saturday in a game.
The tape didn't last a quarter, though, as Hooker ripped it off after scoring only two points in the opening eight minutes of a PIAA playoff game. Then, Hooker treated North Allegheny like the tape.
Hooker came alive after the first quarter, ripped through North Allegheny and finished with close to a triple-double in leading New Castle to a 64-54 victory in a Class AAAA second-round game at Ambridge.
New Castle 64, North Allegheny 54
New Castle wins over North Allegheny in a PIAA high school basketball playoff game in Ambridge. (Video by John Heller; 3/12/2014)
The win puts undefeated New Castle (28-0) into the quarterfinals Saturday against the winner of the Hampton-McDowell game tonight. North Allegheny finished the season with a 22-5 record. The Tigers lost only 10 games the past two years -- and all 10 were to New Castle (six) and Hampton (four).
Hooker was a gigantic factor in this loss. A 6-foot-1 senior guard-forward, Hooker is one of the most-gifted athletes in recent Western Pennsylvania history, and he showed it again. An Ohio State football recruit, Hooker had 22 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals.
"He might be the most athletic kid who plays as hard as he does in the 23 years I've been doing this," said North Allegheny coach Dave DeGregorio. "He really came to play. I thought David Haus actually really did a good job in guarding him in the half court. He was physical with him and he moved his feet. But ... "
He's still Malik Hooker.
Hooker scored on a number of drives to the basket, a few put-backs, a few pull-up jumpers and a breakaway dunk. He finished 9 of 13 from the field.
"I was a little tentative early on because of my wrist. I didn't want to hurt it more than it was," Hooker said.
"Then, I just started thinking that this could be my last time playing basketball. If we lose, I'll never play again. I just told myself to turn it up and lead the team to a victory."
Hooker, who averages 23 points a game, took only two shots in the first quarter, and one was a desperation shot at the first-quarter buzzer.
"I predicted the wrap on his wrist would be off by halftime," New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. "I was wrong. It was gone, I think, midway through the first quarter."
Hooker threw some beautiful no-look passes for layups.
"I think he's a great passer," Blundo said. "Two things that aren't talked about enough with Malik are his basketball IQ and also his ability to find people."
Besides Hooker, another key to the game was New Castle's defense.
It wasn't the Red Hurricanes' full-court presses that hurt North Allegheny so much. Instead, it was their defense when the press was broken. North Allegheny had 18 turnovers in the first half. That defense helped New Castle make a 13-2 run in the final 3:20 of the first half and build a 34-21 halftime lead.
New Castle opened a 42-25 lead with 4:56 left in the third quarter, and North Allegheny never got closer than nine the rest of the way. North Allegheny usually relies heavily on 3-point attempts, but the Tigers had only seven 3-point attempts in the first three quarters. They made 5 of 8 in the fourth quarter.
Senior forward Stew Allen had 12 points and seven rebounds for New Castle.
The loss overshadowed a terrific performance by North Allegheny junior guard Cole Constantino, who scored 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range.
North Allegheny often bagged its regular offense and cleared out to let Constantino go one-on-one.
"I think he played great," Blundo said of Constantino. "I don't think he made any uncontested shots, and that's a credit to him."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.