New Castle basketball's undefeated season ends in state semifinal

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- New Castle coach Ralph Blundo paced on a linoleum floor in a hallway separated from the court. His team had lost 67-63. A few feet away, Lower Merion's student section engulfed the court, celebrating the trip to the state championship that New Castle had wanted so badly.

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

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

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

"We were outmanned out there," Blundo said.

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

The game felt like it could have 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 three-pointer. He made another basket. So did Jaquan Johnson. And now New Castle started turning over the ball. That's what helped contribute to a 14-2 run, and a halftime lead for Lower Merion of 29-28.

Lower Merion was all arms and length, with just enough speed thrown in. Yohanny Dalembert grabbed rebounds, many offensive, and scored 15 points. Forward B.J. 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 game at 43-43. But Dalembert, Johnson and Raheem Hall kept scoring for Lower Merion. Lower Merion forced 21 turnovers. It out-rebounded New Castle 26-13.

When he finally entered that locker room, Blundo said he told his players to not worry about the "greatest team" in the PIAA talk that had surrounded them for the last several weeks. He told them to think of their legacy as the best at New Castle and for the way they had played together this season and the previous two seasons. After a couple of minutes you could hear applause from the inside.

Soon after, the players trudged out of the locker room in their warmup sweats toward the bus. Lower Merion's celebration had long ago subsided.

Parents and fans waited and consoled them, clapping as each player exited. The ride was surely going to be long, but Blundo wanted them to spend the time remembering this season and the last two 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, Twitter @mdent05


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