MIFFLINBURG - District 4 fans watched Loyalsock and St. John Neumann play their first official game Thursday. Little did many know it was just the next in a long series of games the nearby rivals had played since last summer.
The game was played 40 miles away from both schools but could have easily been played at Short Park or in someone's backyard. They might be opponents, but all the players know the others and live near each other. So it did not really matter that Loyalsock and Neumann were playing in the Heartland Conference Semifinals. They were playing for something more important - bragging rights.
Score one for Loyalsock.
Omar Little of Loyalsock goes for a layup as Neumann’s Ryan Reid defends Thursday at Mifflinburg. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
Roger Wilson recorded another double-double and Loyalsock excelled in transition as it pulled away from determined Neumann and won, 71-51 while earning a spot in Saturday's championship against Lewisburg. The Lancers (20-3) never trailed after the first quarter and opened an 11-point halftime lead against the HAC-III champions, playing without injured starting forward Tyree Vidal.
"Over the summer we played with these guys at Short Park a lot and we'd go to some open gyms at their place so it's definitely a big win for us," said Loyalsock guard Tommy Baggett, who played well off the bench. "When you know all their names you know who they are so it's always competitive and it always means a lot."
Loyalsock and Neumann (20-2) used to play every season, sometimes twice, but the rivalry ended a few years ago. Last night might have been the start of a new chapter. What a good one it could be too since the rivals have combined for 80 wins the last two seasons.
"We'd like to rekindle the rivalry with Neumann because it would make a for a great series," said Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger, who won his 795th career game. "(Neumann coach) Paul (Petcavage) had mentioned at the beginning of the season how we should consider meeting again because it's always going to be a great game and it's going to pack the gym every time, so this is kind of special."
The game went back and forth throughout the first quarter and they both went at it on both ends, treating every possession like it was their last. It was like a heavyweight fight for much of the first half, but Loyalsock started landing some big blows when standout Neumann center Alize Johnson picked up two early fouls. Wilson really started doing damage at that point and had a double-double by halftime, scoring 10 second-quarter points.
The senior center has been one of the district's best all season and was a force again last night, scoring 19 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking four shots. It was the guards, though, who sparked a half-ending 6-0 run that changed the game's complexion and gave Loyalsock an 11-point halftime lead. Baggett and Mike Pastore (11 points) dealt three straight assists in the final minute and Loyalsock led by double digits the rest of the game.
"We definitely had some momentum going into halftime," Baggett said. "We realized we could run on them so we wanted to keep executing our offense and playing good defense."
Loyalsock extended its lead to 16 and then Neumann was dealt a devastating blow when Johnson picked up his fourth foul with 2:48 remaining in the third quarter. Already playing without Vidal and Andrew Keeler, Neumann struggled to keep up and Loyalsock opened up a 19-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Johnson was sensational despite being in foul trouble. Coming off a brilliant performance Wednesday against Muncy, the junior center scored 22 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dealt seven assists while making a nice statement on a big stage.
"He has grown a lot and he was a guard all the way up so you combine those guard skills with his size and it's a really nice combination," Petcavage said. "This was a good experience for us. It's a whole different level and I told the guys that's what it's going to be like in districts."
The Knights never wilted and cut the deficit to 15 two minutes into the fourth quarter. Every time Neumann started to make a push, Loyalsock answered. The guards did not pile up the points but Kyle Datres dealt eight assists and Omar Little had four more while Pastore and Ryan Bogaczyk combined for 22 points. Loyalsock hit 7 of 10 shots in the fourth quarter and the guards made a big difference.
Jordan Cole came alive for Neumann in the second half , scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds and dealing five assists. Noah Beiter and Ryan Reid were relentless inside and did their best to compensate for Vidal's absence.
"We never had complete control of the game. Whenever when we tried to open the gap they'd make a run and never back down," Insinger said. "I give those guys a lot of credit. They were down some guys and they played with a lot of heart and made us work for everything we got."
"It was a good learning experience," Petcavage said. "It helps us point out what we need to work on."
Loyalsock and Lewisburg will be playing for the third time and make the first Heartland Tournament an all HAC-II showdown. Despite that, both will be paired in the same half of the District 4 Class AA playoff bracket.
Alize Johnson 9 3-5 22, Jordan Cole 3 2-2 8, Richard Allen 3 1-2 7, Noah Beiter 2 2-2 6, Ryan Reid 3 0-0 6, Isaac Beiter 1 0-0 2, Otis Anderson 0 0-1 0. Totals 21 8-13 51.
Roger Wilson 9 1-3 19, Kyle Datres 2 3-6 8, Omar Little 4 1-2 9, Ben Sosa 3 2-2 8, Mike Pastore 4 3-3 11, Ryan Bogaczyk 4 2-2 11, Tommy Baggett 2 0-0 5. Totals 28 12-19 71.
Neumann10 12 12 17-51
Loyalsock13 20 20 18-71
3-pointers: Neumann 1 (Johnson). Loyalsock 3 (Datres, Bogaczyk, Baggett).
Records: Loyalsock 20-3. Neumann 20-2.