WPIAL champion New Castle holds off Titusville in PIAA 1st-round victory

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Saturday, March 9, 2019 | 12:06 AM


This was the sixth time New Castle entered the state playoffs as WPIAL champion under coach Ralph Blundo, so he understands the so-called “WPIAL hangover” better than most.

As the theory goes, WPIAL champions start the PIAA playoffs unfocused and sluggish after their title celebration. But sometimes, when wins aren’t easy, you’ve got to credit your opponent too, Blundo said Friday night.

New Castle missed 11 of its first dozen 3-pointers and trailed by five before halftime but used a strong second half to defeat tenacious Titusville, 72-61, in a PIAA Class 4A playoff opener at North Allegheny.

Titusville (18-6), the third-place team from District 10, wasn’t put away until New Castle made one final push early in the fourth quarter.

“How do you not give credit to Titusville?” Blundo said. “In general we all like to say we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that. But Titusville played good basketball tonight. Maybe they were a big reason we didn’t play well.”

But, yes, he added, the hangover was a real concern as well.

Demitris McKnight led New Castle (22-4) with 16 points in his first game back after missing the entire WPIAL playoffs for an undisclosed issue. Sheldon Cox scored 14 points and Drew Cox had 13 as five Red Hurricanes scored in double figures.

Payne Prowell and Michael Wells each added 11.

“They weren’t going away,” Prowell said. “They kept fighting and fighting until we made a couple of big plays at the end of the third quarter to create some separation.”

New Castle faces District 10 runner-up Grove City on Tuesday in the second round. Grove City defeated District 5 champion Bedford, 67-52, on Friday. Second-round sites and times were not yet announced.

After Blundo’s five other WPIAL titles, the Red Hurricanes won their PIAA first-round game by an average of 73-48. Only a seven-point win over Bethel Park in 2014 was reasonably close.

But Titusville caused them trouble.

“Even though we had a great week of practice, I was genuinely concerned because they have one of the best guards we’ve seen all year,” Blundo said. “And two, I was concerned about overall focus (for an inexperienced team) heading into the first state playoff game. It’s all new.”

Titusville’s JaiQuil Johnson, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, scored a game-high 25 points with three 3-pointers. He went 8 for 21 from the field and 6 for 6 from the foul line.

“He’s one of the best we’ve seen,” Prowell said. “He played all around. He was able to shoot the ball, he could drive, he made his free throws. He was a hard player (to defend) and they played all around him on offense.”

The teams were tied 31-31 just after halftime before New Castle sparked an 8-0 run with four points from Sheldon Cox, a put-back basket by Drew Cox and two free throws by Wells.

A pair of 3s by Prowell carried New Castle to a 52-44 lead after three.

The Red Hurricanes then started the fourth quarter with consecutive 3s by Wells, Drew Cox and Sheldon Cox to lead 61-50. New Castle went 3 for 18 from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half but made 6 of 13 in the second.

“Sometimes they don’t go in,” Blundo said. “They went in in the second half. Maybe we took cleaner ones. Or maybe we were just a little more focused. I don’t know? … All I know is they went in. If they don’t, we don’t win.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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