CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Looking for the hero that propelled New Castle to the PIAA Class AAAA boys basketball championship game for the first time since 1998? Sorry. Can't pick one. There were a lot of them.
But if one must, one could do a lot worse than senior Malik Hooker.
Hooker, the Hurricanes' leading scorer this season with nearly 23 points per game, made two huge non-scoring plays in a madcap fourth quarter that played an enormous role in New Castle's 58-54 victory against District 1's Abington at Chambersburg Area High School.
That victory will give the Hurricanes a fourth shot at their first PIAA boys basketball championship. New Castle will face La Salle College High School (23-6) at 8 p.m. Saturday at Giant Center in Hershey in the Class AAAA championship.
The Hurricanes (30-0) entered the fourth quarter leading Abington (25-6) by eight, stretching the lead to 13 after two 3-pointers by leading scorer Anthony Richards (16 points) in the first minute of the period.
New Castle maintained that comfortable margin, leading, 51-40, with just 3 minutes to play. There seemed to be no need for heroics of any kind.
But the Ghosts, nothing if not scrappy, turned a basket by sharpshooter Anthony Lee and a three-point foul by Matthew Penecale into an 11-0 run that turned a sure win into crowd-dissolving one-point game, 51-50, with a little more than a minute to play.
Stew Allen's basket at 1:25 put New Castle ahead by three, but Lee, who was unbelievable with 16 fourth-quarter points, scored two baskets in a row, including off a pass from a prone Penecale, that gave Abington a 54-53 lead with 32 seconds left.
That was Abington's first since the 2:03 mark of the first quarter when the Ghosts' 6-0 lead was erased by New Castle.
At the very moment that Abington had a perfect opportunity to grab the momentum for good, Hooker swiped the ball and launched a downcourt rocket to Stew Allen for an easy layup and a 55-54 lead with 28 seconds left.
"That was a savvy play by a veteran player," New Castle head coach Ralph Blundo said. "It's the kind of play we've seen from Malik before."
And Abington's momentum grab?
"Malik killed it right there," Blundo said.
The Hurricanes had come off the ropes for good. But it would take another gigantic play from Hooker to make the victory stand.
Actually, make that two more gigantic plays. On Abington's next trip, Hooker blocked a shot by Jordan Neeley out of bounds with 19.9 seconds left.
Then, with Abington in possession, Penecale made a powerful drive down the lane and lofted the ball softly toward the basket.
Enter Hooker again.
He planted himself just beyond the basket, and he and Penecale had a thunderous meeting.
Hooker won, drawing the charge call with 10.6 seconds left, giving New Castle the ball.
"I saw him coming and he had a head of steam," Hooker said. "There was nothing left to do by stand my ground."
He did. The ball went in. And it didn't count.
"I give the official credit," Blundo said. "It was the right call, no matter what the game situation was."
Abington head coach Charles Grasty was less enthusiastic about the call.
"I don't know," said Grasty, his body language betraying his neutral answer. "I'm not going to worry about that one call. There were a lot of calls in this game."
At that, New Castle had the ball, and Abington made a smart foul before the inbounds pass. But Richards made both free throws to make it 57-54.
Abington, which fought incredibly hard in the fourth quarter, had one last chance to tie, but Neely was unable to connect on the wide-open 3-point attempt.
Drew Allen rebounded, was fouled and made his second three throw with 0.6 left to secure the victory.
"That was just a great fourth quarter," said Blundo. "Abington just made some great shots. But my guys played as hard as they could for 32 minutes."
"It was time to fight," Grasty said about his team's 24-point fourth quarter. "We told the kids they were right where they wanted to be. It was either fold or fight. We fought."
And what a fight it was.
Senior * G * Iowa State
Schenley High School
The skinny: Helped Schenley to PIAA title in 2007 as a junior. Made first team All-Big 12 this season and was one of 30 finalists for the Naismith national college player of the year.
Junior * G * Arizona
The skinny: As a senior, helped Chartiers Valley to PIAA Class AAA runner-up finish in 2010. Was second team All-Pac-12 in first season in Arizona.
ON THE WEB
■ Get a first look at this weekend's PIAA championships on VarsityXtra video beginning later today at www.post-gazette.com.
■ Break out the Hershey bars! Seton-LaSalle has twice the reason to celebrate today.
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