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New Castle outworks Ambridge for key Section 2-4A win

Joe Sager
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Ambridge entered Friday night’s WPIAL Section 2-4A showdown at New Castle with a bigger lineup.

However, the Red Hurricanes countered with a bigger effort to cruise past the Bridgers, 69-49.

Despite going against a Bridgers team that featured twin 6-foot-6 towers Aaron Hilzendeger and Liam Buck and 6-4 Isaiah Thomas in its starting lineup and 6-5 Enire Bowens off the bench, New Castle won the rebounding battle, 37-21, which fueled the win.

“It was a great win and a great team effort,” New Castle’s Sheldon Cox said. “We had to be more aggressive. That was a big difference.”

The Red Hurricanes (13-3, 7-1) won the turnover battle, too. They turned the ball over eight times and forced the Bridgers (11-6, 6-2) into 15 giveaways.

“That’s who we are. These kids fight. They worked really, really hard tonight. I thought they were really engaged defensively. I think the few mistakes we made were a byproduct of our youth and inexperience and not a byproduct of being engaged and hustling,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “I thought we just played a really solid basketball game, as a whole, against a really good basketball team.”

Bridgers coach Mark Jula warned his squad about the potential pitfalls it faced against New Castle.

“If you don’t rebound and you don’t play hard, you’re not going to win,” he said. “The key was them outrebounding us. There’s your game. They don’t have a guy over 6-foot. Who got every loose ball in the first half? The team in white. They played harder and they rebounded better. Before the game, it was discussed that we had to rebound and we had to play harder than them and neither one of them happened.”

Ambridge started off quickly as it posted a 7-0 lead. However, the Red Hurricanes marched back and Cox’s 3-pointer lifted the hosts to a 12-11 edge at the buzzer. It gave New Castle a jolt heading into the second, too.

Mike Wells swished a 3-pointer and Cox connected for another to fuel a 15-3 run to open the frame. It pushed the Red Hurricanes to a 27-14 advantage with 3:46 left in the half.

“Hitting those 3s got us real hyped, and it carried over into the second half, too,” Cox said. “It was all about teamwork. We started playing defense. We controlled the controllables.”

“We were struggling a little bit just trying to get used to their size. I thought Mike Wells sparked us with some huge 3s and then Sheldon heated up,” Blundo said. “We shot it better in the second quarter. We got some opportunities around the basket, and I thought Demetris McKnight did a good job on the offensive glass. We executed well and we defended.”

New Castle carried a 32-21 lead into halftime. The Bridgers made a push early in the third quarter. Isaiah Thomas drained a trey to cut the deficit to eight points, 34-26, with 6:30 left in the third. However, the Red Hurricanes stopped that rally and held off the guests to capture sole possession of first place in the section.

“They got it down to eight and they kept coming back on us, but we were able to keep them at bay,” Blundo said. “I think it was our defensive focus that was the difference in the game.”

Cox, a sophomore, led all scorers with 21 points.

“Sheldon has really evolved as a player. He’s only a sophomore, and I think he just felt like he was just a shooter. But, I told him he’s a player and he can use the dribble and attack the rim,” Blundo said.

Demitris McKnight finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Drew Cox added 15 points and six rebounds and Wells had eight points and four rebounds for New Castle, which visits Quaker Valley on Tuesday in another huge section battle.

“It’s very important to have balance,” Sheldon Cox said. “I am real happy with how we’ve progressed. It’s a real crazy league. We know we just have to keep working hard.”

Hilzendeger and Buck both led Ambridge with 12 points. Thomas finished with 10.

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.