Belle Vernon ends New Castle’s reign, makes first WPIAL finals trip since 1978

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 | 9:26 PM

Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino did not speak to his players about New Castle’s success in the WPIAL boys basketball playoffs or the Red Hurricanes’ reputation as a storied program.

He didn’t see a need to oversell his team’s semifinal opponent.

“The kids know all of that already,” the veteran coach said. “There was no need to reiterate that. You don’t want to make (an opponent) too big.”

If there was a mystique, Belle Vernon didn’t give it a second thought.

In fact, New Castle probably has a greater respect for Belle Vernon, whose thrill ride will continue.

Sixth-seeded Belle Vernon scored the final 11 points after New Castle took a late, one-point lead and used a spark from its bench and strong rebounding to down the seventh-seeded Red Hurricanes, 56-46, in a WPIAL Class 4A semifinal Wednesday night at North Allegheny.

The Leopards (19-6) advance to the finals for the first time since 1978 when they defeated Norwin for the WPIAL 3A title. They will play Highlands (21-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.

Three-time defending WPIAL champion New Castle (17-8) will now look to regroup for the PIAA playoffs.

“Defense and rebounding played a big part in this win,” Salvino said. “The last two games we have played four good quarters. That’s what we need to do to be successful. I believed this team could be something special if they believed in themselves.”

Sophomore Devin Whitlock scored 17 points to pace the Leopards, who built a 45-41 lead early in the fourth quarter after a 3-pointer by sophomore Daniel Gordon, who gave the team big minutes off the bench.

Freshman Isiah Boice finished a three-point play, though, with 3:22 remaining to make it 46-45, the Red Hurricanes’ first lead since late in the first quarter.

But the Leopards weren’t fazed and did not let New Castle put together one of its patented playoff runs.

“I called a timeout and told them there is a lot of basketbal left,” said Salvino, who coached at Monessen for 34 years and won six WPIAL titles there. “There was no need to rush anything.”

Senior Thomas Hepple, another key reserve, put back a miss for the Leopards and New Castle was whistled for a double-dribble. That’s when the decisive run started.

“It was a big team game,” Whitlock said. “Everybody had a good game. This was our best team game all year..”

The Leopards also made two key defensive stops down the stretch as New Castle tried to rally.

Senior Hunter Ruokonen made a layup, Hepple tapped in an alley-oop pass from Gordon and senior Jared Hartman made a free throw to make it 51-46 with 1:09 to play.

“We had to stay composed,” Whitlock said. “We knew they were going to come out swinging, come out big. We had to play our game. Stay calm and do what we do all season. That’s what we did.”

Hartman, who made two 3-pointers, had nine points and 10 rebounds. Senior Mitchell Pohlot had eight points and 12 rebounds.

Hepple also finished with eight points, including a dunk for the final basket.

“Everyone was giving the effort,” Hartman said. “Everyone contributed, and it was a nice win. All five of us rebounded. We tried to make it another game.

“We went to Heinz (in football) and now we’re going to Petersen. It’s like no other.”

A big second quarter allowed the Leopards to build a 28-21 lead by halftime.

Whitlock had seven points in the quarter as the Leopards outscored the Red Hurricanes, 14-5. Hartman’s corner 3-pointer made it 28-21.

Junior Sheldon Cox, who dealt with three first-half fouls, scored seven in the third for New Castle to close the gap to 40-39 heading to the fourth. Belle Vernon led the entire quarter (it was tied 31-31), despite a 6-0 run by the Red Hurricanes to open the half.

Gordon’s three made it 40-34 with 1:22 to play in the third.

Cox his a corner three at the end of the quarter to cut it 40-39.

Sophomore Michael Wells had 12 of New Castle’s 16 points in the first quarter, including two 3-pointers, as the Red Hurricanes took a 16-14 edge.

Wells finished with a game-high 18 points, Boice had 14, and Cox added 10.

Belle Vernon played without senior guard Cam Nusser, who did not make the trip to McCandless with the team. He did not play for undisclosed reasons, but Salvino said it was not related to the guard’s ankle injury.

Belle Vernon overcame a 4-for-13 effort from the free-throw line.

Watch an archived broadcast on Trib HSSN.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at or via Twitter .

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