Hickory ousts New Castle from PIAA playoffs

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Friday, March 6, 2020 | 10:56 PM


One word kept sounding over a standing room only crowd at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Field House on Friday night.

Patience.

Hickory delivered on coach Chris Mele’s orders in attacking the New Castle defense en route to a 58-48 victory in the first round of the PIAA Class 4A playoffs. It was the second straight year the ‘Canes fell to Hickory in the PIAA tournament at Slippery Rock.

“It really was the same type of game (as last year),” Mele said. “We know that New Castle is a quality team. They’re going to fight to the end, and they fought to the end tonight.”

While patience was a virtue for the Hornets throughout the game, it was a hot start that allowed for Hickory to take that tactic in the latter stages. Donald Whitehead, the second-leading scorer in program history, scored 14 of his game-high 29 points in the first quarter.

“That’s who he is,” Mele said of his senior leader, who has yet to get any Division I offers. “That’s nothing out of the ordinary for him to do. He’s a special player. He’s so quick — you don’t realize how quick he is until you play him. He’s such a good finisher on the drive.”

“Our commitment all night was to keep a chest in front, two high hands, and force them to make contested shots,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “When you have a sensational player like Donald, you have to hope that he doesn’t. But he did, and all credit to him.”

After exchanging early baskets, Hickory went on a 13-0 run to take a 15-2 lead. The Hornets led 19-8 at the end of the first and 35-23 at halftime.

“We were making shots, and I think defensively that we were locked in,” Mele said of the early run. “Everything they were taking was contested. That’s been kind of a trademark of ours this year. Tonight, it didn’t let us down.”

New Castle made a run in the final two minutes of the second quarter and the first two minutes of the third quarter. After misfiring on their first 10 3-point attempts of the game, the ‘Canes connected a pair of Sheldon Cox and Isiah Boice 3-pointers as part of an 8-2 run late in the first half.

“When we shot (the first made 3), the timing of when we shot them, they were cleaner looks,” Blundo said. “In the first half, our game plan was to drive it more, and we didn’t. Maybe it was because they do a good job guarding, and when you’re young, you become a little impatient.”

Cox and Boice each hit another 3-pointer as part of an 8-1 run start to the second half that cut the deficit to 36-31 with 5:00 left in the third.

That’s as close as New Castle would get, as the Hornets defense swarmed the ‘Canes offense the rest of the game.

“Anything we didn’t do well tonight, it was all credit to Hickory,” Blundo said.

Sheldon Cox led New Castle with 20 points and seven rebounds. Michael Wells, the ‘Canes’ leading scorer, followed with 10 points and five rebounds before fouling out with 5:10 remaining.

It was a trying season for the three-time defending WPIAL champion Red Hurricanes (17-9). In Blundo’s 10-year tenure, this is the first season that New Castle has not eclipsed 20 wins, and is also the first time the ‘Canes did not win in the opening round of the state playoffs.

It was a learning process all year for a young New Castle team that started one senior, one junior, two sophomores and one freshman.

“The learning was with me,” Blundo said. “I haven’t had a season like this, so a lot of it was my staff and I learning and understanding how to handle multiple difficult moments throughout the year.”

Hickory (22-4) will play District 6 champion Huntingdon in the second round Tuesday. Huntingdon defeated Blackhawk, 70-57, in the first round.

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