'Awesome' ending for La Salle, despite loss

Posted: March 25, 2014

HERSHEY - David Krmpotich was nearly flawless in his verbalization of the La Salle High basketball season as he stood in front of a gaggle of reporters after the upstart Explorers lost in the Class AAAA championship Saturday night at the Giant Center in Hershey.

"This is awesome that we could even get here," the 6-7 junior forward said. "This is amazing. We did not expect this. Really, our 65 practices this year shaped us into the team we were today."

The only missing words were melancholy, but his face, speckled in crimson and dripping with disappointment, said it all.

In fact, "awesome" might be an apt description of an Explorers' season that needed all 65 practices to coalesce late, solidify an identity and eventually become District 12's first AAAA title contender.

The team that began the season with gaping holes left by seven graduating seniors finished fourth in Catholic League play, knocked off the defending state champions and runner-up in consecutive PIAA playoff games and were only undone by one key stretch, by an undefeated team, in the finale.

"The kids are devastated," La Salle coach Joe Dempsey said. "There were a lot of tears. It's tough to say goodbye to kids you have 4 years invested in. It's tough to say goodbye to them. It's so emotional. As high as we were after winning four games, you're that low after a loss like that."

The Explorers' 52-39 defeat seemed to hinge on a 10-2, third-quarter spurt by District 7 top dog New Castle (31-0) with senior do-it-all Malik Hooker as the catalyst.

After a 16-16 draw at intermission, it appeared La Salle (23-7) was in good position. Maybe some early jitters accounted for just 6-for-18 first-half shooting (33 percent) for the No. 3-seeded Explorers, but the team's staple all season - its defense - held New Castle to only 7-for-22 (32 percent).

"Holding those guys to 16 points, I felt pretty good about that at halftime," Dempsey said, adding later, "Truthfully, I really just had a sense it would be who would punch first in the third quarter, and sure enough. And that's not a team you want to be chasing around the gym."

Hooker, a 6-1 senior headed to Ohio State as a football wide receiver, assisted on three of the first four Red Hurricanes baskets, which yielded the game's largest separation at that point, 26-20, to start the third.

La Salle junior guard Najee Walls answered with a three, but the Explorers would get no closer as the execution that helped them beat defending champ Lower Merion and runner-up Chester couldn't be summoned. New Castle scored 14 of its final 22 fourth-quarter points from the foul line.

Hooker finished with 13 points, 13 boards, four assists, three steals and two blocks. Drew Allen also finished with 13 points for a Red Hurricane squad that started four scholarship football players.

Walls finished with 15 points on 5-for-13 field goal shooting and 4-for-6 free throws. He also finished with four boards and combined with Witherspoon as La Salle's main offensive attackers on the night.

"What a delight," Dempsey said of the duo. "They're great kids to coach, they do everything I ask and put so much into it. Never a cross eye, always, 'How can I get better?' They're so proud to be part of our program.

"They play hard, they play the right way, they share the ball, they don't care who scores, they play defense and we're fortunate to have them. And they're only juniors so it's a nice feeling to know they're coming back."

Krmpotich, who finished with eight points, also will return. And although the loss is bittersweet for now, Krmpotich found perspective from what he learned this season. "Anything can happen," he said. "This feeling won't go away for a while, but we'll be back at it."

On Twitter: @AceCarterDN

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