New Castle tops Laurel Highlands, reaches 7th WPIAL finals in 10 years

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021 | 8:02 PM


Six times in the past decade already, New Castle had reached the WPIAL finals behind a frenzied press defense that’s become a hallmark of the program.

But against Laurel Highlands and its sophomore star, one win away from another finals appearance, the Red Hurricanes lowered the pressure.

“Unless Mookie Blaylock shows up, we’re not taking the ball off Rodney Gallagher,” said New Castle coach Ralph Blundo, dipping into NBA nostalgia.

So, instead of trapping him, they focused on keeping Gallagher as far from the hoop as possible.

With New Castle defending the rim, Laurel Highlands didn’t make a shot in Wednesday night’s first quarter, a dismal start that the Mustangs never overcame. Sheldon Cox scored 23 points, Mike Wells had 20 and No. 2 seed New Castle defeated No. 3 Laurel Highlands, 69-60, in the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals, earning the team its seventh championship appearance in 10 years.

Laurel Highlands started 0 for 8 shooting against New Castle’s zone, trailed by 21 points early in the second quarter and never closed the gap, despite a game-high 28 points from Gallagher.

The 6-foot point guard already ranks among the WPIAL’s best ball-handlers, so New Castle didn’t test him there.

“We’re not going to waste our time and our energy trying to accomplish something that’s probably not in our favor,” Blundo said. “Sure, we have the culture of a certain way we play, but I like to think we’re smart enough to know there’s a right way to play Rodney Gallagher.”

Another part of New Castle’s recent culture is winning WPIAL titles. The Red Hurricanes won Class 3A in 2012 and 4A in 2013, ’14, ’17, ’18 and ’19.

Overall, they have 13 WPIAL titles.

They’ll face top-seeded Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL finals at 8 p.m. Saturday at North Allegheny. The section rivals split two regular-season matchups with each winning big on the other’s home court.

The finals appearance is New Castle’s 16th.

“It feel like we’re going back home,” Wells said. “It’s where we belong. We want another shot at Char Valley.”

Isaiah Boice added 15 points for New Castle (20-2). Brandon Davis had 14 for Laurel Highlands (14-4), the defending WPIAL champion.

This was the second time in five days that Laurel Highlands started slowly. The Mustangs were able to recover in the quarterfinals. But here on New Castle’s home court, they trailed 20-4 after one quarter, and their only points came on four free throws.

“That’s two games in a row,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said. “Against Penn Hills, we didn’t make a basket until there was like a minute and 32 seconds left (in the first quarter). Today, we didn’t make a basket at all. You can’t continue to do that against good teams.”

Wells scored eight points in the first quarter and Cox had seven. New Castle’s lead reached 25-4 before Laurel Highlands’ made its first basket, a 3-pointer by Deondre Deshields a minute into the second.

New Castle led 35-21 at half and 45-33 after three.

“Part of it is shot selection,” Hauger said. “And you’ve got to give their defense some credit too.”

Against Gallagher, New Castle’s goals were to contain him on the perimeter and keep him off the foul line. That strategy worked into the fourth quarter.

Gallagher went 10 for 23 shooting overall, 3 for 8 from 3-point range and 5 for 5 from the foul line. He made two of his 3s in the final minute, cutting a 15-point New Castle lead to nine.

As a team, Laurel Highlands went 4 for 19 from beyond the arc.

“They’re a good free throw shooting team,” Cox said, “so we’d rather them shoot the 3 then get to the hoop and get fouled.”

New Castle had the advantage of playing at home, a perk awarded to higher-seeded teams this winter. Attendance was limited to 15% of capacity, but the atmosphere was louder than most gyms this winter.

“I wish this place could have been standing room only like I know it would have been,” Blundo said. “… But, man, it sure felt special tonight.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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