2-time defending champion New Castle holds off Highlands in WPIAL Class 4A semifinals

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | 10:45 PM

Even as his team created what looked like an insurmountable lead, New Castle’s Ralph Blundo expected a Highlands run.

It came, but that big early advantage indeed was the advantage for the Red Hurricanes.

No. 1 New Castle withstood some shaky free-throw shooting and a huge Highlands fourth-quarter run to hold on for a 68-62 win in a WPIAL Class 4A semifinal game Wednesday night at North Allegheny.

The two-time defending champion Red Hurricanes (20-4) will face No. 3 Quaker Valley (20-3) in the championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Petersen Events Center, in a rematch of the last two year’s finals.

“You’re concerned the whole game, I don’t care if it’s 25-5,” Blundo said. “They’re Highlands. They’re not going away. We knew that.”

In fact, New Castle knew that from experience. The last time the Canes lost a WPIAL playoff game was in the 2016 semifinals, when Highlands rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half to win in overtime.

On Wednesday, No. 5 Highlands (17-8) cut a 28-point New Castle lead down to five in a seven-minute span of the fourth quarter, but the Red Hurricanes had just enough left over to prevail.

“You take a ton of encouragement out of that, just from a culture standpoint of our program,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “Our kids don’t quit. That’s not what we’re about. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 50 or up 50, we’re going to coach the same way, we’re going to play the same way and we’re going to be aggressive.

“There’s always enough time left in the game to make a difference, and it just ended up running out on us today.”

What made the difference Wednesday was New Castle’s performance in the first three quarters. The Red Hurricanes used a tidal wave of 3-pointers and appeared ready to bury Highlands, leading by 13 points after the first quarter, 21 points at halftime and 23 points after three.

“I thought that we had two really good days of preparation, and guys were really ready to play,” Blundo said. “There’s no guarantee that they’re going to play well, but they did. It matters to them. They were focused, and so was Highlands — we just played a little better than them for a majority of the time, but give them credit; they kept battling.”

When Sheldon Cox opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer and a putback, it gave New Castle its largest lead, at 61-33 with just over seven minutes remaining.

That’s when Highlands made its charge. Sparked by Luke Cochran, Johnny Crise and Korry Myers, the Golden Rams went on a 27-4 run to cut New Castle’s lead to 65-60 with 30.3 seconds remaining.

Cochran hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions during that stretch and scored 17 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. Myers had eight points during the run, including a pair of 3s.

“I think it’s a confidence thing, I think it’s an experience thing,” Stoczynski said. “I know a lot of (New Castle’s) guys haven’t played in this type of game, but they were on the bench. They know the intensity of which to play at this level because they’re there every year. It was a great experience for us, and we’re just going to get better.”

New Castle helped Highlands during that run by struggling at the free-throw line. The Red Hurricanes shot 3 for 13 from the line in the fourth and 9 for 23 in the game, but Michael Wells made three key free throws in the final 30 seconds.

Highlands had its own free-throw troubles, shooting 10 of 24 from the line.

The shooting struggles for New Castle didn’t extend to the 3-point line. The Red Hurricanes made nine 3s, including four from Cox, who had 27 points. Donte Burnett scored 18 points and hit three 3s.

Despite facing double teams on the block, Crise scored 23 points and had 19 rebounds before fouling out late for Highlands. He had 13 of the Golden Rams’ 19 first-half points. Cochran scored 22, and Myers had 14.

Highlands will go into the PIAA playoffs March 8 as either the third or fourth seed from the WPIAL, depending on the result of Saturday’s game between New Castle and Ambridge.

“We’re going to take a couple days off, reassess where we’re at, watch some film and just try to have guys understand the level of intensity you have to have when you’re in situations like this, in games like this,” Stoczynski said.

If it beats Quaker Valley on Saturday, New Castle will tie Farrell for the most WPIAL boys basketball titles, with 13. Quaker Valley beat New Castle twice this season in Section 2-4A play, 67-48 and 70-67.

“We know what we’re getting into,” Blundo said. “They beat us twice this year, and we’ll spend two days getting ready for them. Playing Quaker Valley’s just about really who plays better basketball in that game.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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