HERSHEY — Coming into the 2014 season, the La Salle Explorers touted players with less than two dozen points in Philadelphia Catholic League play. Competitors like Dave Krmpotich, Najee Walls and Shawn Witherspoon were reserved to mainly inbounds plays while leaders like Amar Stukes paved the way.
Three months later and those same inexperienced youngsters found themselves on the biggest stage in Pennsylvania state basketball — the Giant Center in Hershey.
Yet when the clocks hit zeroes, it was the New Castle Red Hurricanes who came out on top. Behind tough athleticism — the team has four Division I football recruits to go with a Division II basketball player — the undefeated powerhouse from western Pa. came out victorious 52-39.
"They were extremely athletic,' said Najee Walls who led La Salle with 15 points. "It was pretty tough. They slowed down our break and got back on defense really well.
"Tonight they played a better defensive game than us.'
The score was knotted at 16-all at half. The Explorers looked sluggish early, but found their bearings in the second quarter. Krmpotich had height on the Hurricanes' forwards, but those football players used their aggressiveness to outrebound the Explorers 17-to-11 in the first half and 36-to-23 overall.
"They were football players playing baskeball and the refs failed to recognize that and let them make football plays, in my opinion,' Krmpotich said.
The second half was all New Castle. Breaking out a six-point-lead in the third quarter, the Hurricanes extending that surplus to more than a dozen points midway through the fourth.
Malik Hooker of New Castle was quick off the dribble, strong in the paint and a fiend on the boards. He tore down a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
"That athleticism when you get up on Hooker is pretty special,' said La Salle coach Joe Dempsey. "I think we got gassed at times. We didn't hit a couple shots we normally hit.'
The Explorers never quit, but it was just a testament to the Hurricanes who hit big shots, made their freethrows and played stringent defense.
"Our kids played tough and I think what you saw from those guys (New Castle) was their seniors made timely plays,' Dempsey said.
At the conclusion of the medal ceremony, the La Salle players and staff took a moment to thank the student section who turned out in droves and turned up the arena.
"What I've seen the last couple weeks are people saying how proud they were that La Salle basketball was doing so well,' Dempsey said. "I really wanted to win the game for all the guys who have gone through the program since 1981 and haven't gotten a championship.'