The Omar Little buzzer-beater gave Loyalsock the win last Tuesday. But both Loyalsock and Lewisburg combined to make District 4 the biggest winner that night.
The District 4 Class AA title contenders entered the anticipated game ranked Nos. 4-5 in the state. Two small-school area teams being ranked that high at the same is rare in this area so this game was as much a showcase for the district as it was a fight for first place in the HAC-II.
And what a show it was.
Loyalsock and Omar Little, right, beat Lewisburg and Drew Newcomb last week.
Little's buzzer-beating leaner off the glass capped a sensational game in which the lead changed hands three times in the final 15 seconds as Loyalsock won, 53-52. Both teams showed why they are state-caliber teams and put District 4 in the best light possible, the way the Loyalsock-Hughesville rivalry did a few years earlier.
"If there were people from the state watching this game we represented District 4 real dog-gone well," Lewisburg coach John Vaji said. "Both these teams are going to be battle-tested and we're going to battle down the road and if we're fortunate enough to stay healthy and get into the state tournament, both these teams could do some damage."
A year ago, Loyalsock reached the state quarterfinals and was a split second from reaching the Final 4. Lewisburg was a shot or two from beating eventual state finalist Holy Cross in the first round. Both teams obviously have state-caliber programs again, going a combined 24-2. Loyalsock is the only team that has beaten Lewisburg and Loyalsock's only loss is a two-point decision to District 1 Class AAAA Upper Darby.
Still, many outside District 4 might not have been paying attention. That is why Tuesday's game was so important. This was two heavyweight boxers throwing haymakers with neither one backing down. Every time one landed a big blow, like Ben Sosa and Wes Lapoint throwing down consecutive rim-bending dunks, the other came right back with a nice shot of if its own.
The state seems to be catching on too. In the new state rankings, Loyalsock moved up to No. 3 and Lewisburg to No. 4.
"It's really good for the district," Little said. "When the two best teams in the area go at it that's fun to see. You give the crowd a show and it's exciting."
The intensity inside the gym made this feel like a district championship or state playoff game. The quality of play was outstanding too. The teams combined for just 15 turnovers and neither led by more than four in the second half. Each quarter ended with a buzzer-beater, different players hit huge shots at pivotal moments and it seemed the whole time that whoever had the ball last might win.
Yes, it was just a regular-season game but this was District 4 basketball at its best. This was a game that showed why both teams could enhance the district's image again come March.
"I think it's healthy for District 4 and hopefully for people outside the area it's going to open up their eyes too," Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger said. "As far as basketball itself we're not a hot bed yet, but we're getting there with a lot of quality teams in the district. Hopefully we're going to make some noise in states this year and be recognized as one of the powers."
FIX THE SYSTEM: Speaking of Loyalsock-Lewisburg, a flawed district playoff system could again have these two face off before the championship. Each year, I and others complain about how wrong a system that only bases teams on overall records is. Each year, those complaints fall on deaf ears. If things stay the way they are right now, East Juniata (11-0) would be the top seed and Lewisburg and Loyalsock the Nos. 2-3. If both advanced, they would meet in the semifinals-just like last year.
It was ridiculous that those two met before the championship last year when they were clearly the two best teams in the district and it would be a travesty if they did again this season. While East Juniata is a good team having a great season it plays nowhere near the competition Lewisburg and Loyalsock do. Look at who both have lost to and look at their non-conference schedules. Those games are in addition to the ones they play in the HAC-II, the conference that has produced the last 16 district champions.
The best solution would be a selection committee like the NCAA has in which schedule strength and league strength, are used to base seedings. Why not use a RPI formula the way the NCAA does so teams are rewarded for playing tough competition and not punished? The NCAA would never seed Bucknell No. 1 over a North Carolina or Duke and District 4 should not either.
The system is broken and needs fixed. Loyalsock and Lewisburg both have long ways to go and in sports it's never a given that a team will reach the championship. Many obstacles remain. But both clearly they are the best teams at this moment and it would be a shame to see them meet in anything but a championship come playoff time if that continues to hold.
District 4 has struggled in the past at the state level and one of the reasons is its own district undercuts it. Who knows how far Lewisburg might have went last year had it finished second, not third, and not played Holy Cross in the first round.
I do not mean to just rail against District 4 basketball. They want to do well and they just use the system all other District 4 sports other than football uses. There is time, though, to change it. Fix it now and avoid another February farce.
PUTBACKS: Sullivan County forward Conner Wylie has been at the heart of the best run in his program's history and reached an impressive milestone last Friday. Wylie grabbed his 500th career rebound while recording his 11th double-double this season in a 47-25 win over Benton. Wylie has helped Sullivan win 56 games the last three seasons and is a big reason the Griffins (10-3) have won six of their last seven a year after losing four quality starters ... Bucktail's Chuck Probst scored his 1000th career point Wednesday at Benton. Probst scored 26 points in that game and is averaging 21.6 this season, third highest among area players ... Galeton (10-3) is a win from clinching a second straight playoff berth and Dakota Shadle had 19 points while adding 10 steals in Saturday's 54-43 win over Oswayo Valley ... Montoursville's Jim McMahon scored a career-high 22 points and drained five 3-pointers in a 45-40 loss to Hughesville ... Jersey Shore had four players in double figures in Friday's 57-52 win at Shikellamy. The Bulldogs (7-5) have won five of their last six and are four wins from reaching the postseason for the first time since 2009 ... Liberty (4-9) is showing improvement and won two games last weekend, upsetting Cowanesque Valley, 60-54 as JJ Walker scored 18 points ... Bo Burleigh grabbed 18 rebounds in Mansfield's 60-48 win over North Penn. The Tigers (10-5) are a win from clinching a sixth straight playoff berth. Wellsboro (9-4) has won three straight and had four players in double figures in Saturday's 58-38 win over Wyalusing.
Dr. Masse's top five area boys basketball
1. Loyalsock (11-1): The Lancers kept rolling following the dramatic Lewisburg win, defeating Hughesville and Philadelphia's Sankofa Freedom Academy by 50 combined points. Junior forward Ben Sosa is really emerging as a low-post threat and is doing everything possible to compensate for the graduation of all-state center Roger Wilson. Sosa not only is scoring and rebounding consistently, but also is passing well, playing solid defense and making steals. He had eight steals against Lewisburg and Sankofa. Junior guard Mike Pastore is building off last year's breakout season too and had a career-high 23 points along with six rebounds against Sankofa. Kyle Datres continues seeing the court as well as anyone and had 11 assists in that win.
2. St. John Neumann (13-0): The Knights have received big challenges from their three biggest HAC-III threats, Sullivan County, South Williamsport and Muncy, in the last two weeks but remain unscathed. Neumann won those games by a combined 15 points and has been able to excel in tough environments under pressure, a good sign for a team hoping to repeat as both HAC-III and District 4 Class A champions.
"I told them that we are going to be placed with a target on our back because of winning the district championship and the number of good players we have," Neumann Paul Petcavage said following Friday's 79-70 win at Muncy. "When we come to places like Muncy that has a good crowd you have to be able to respond and they did that."
3. Lewisburg (13-1): He flies under the radar, but senior point guard Jesse Flannery is having a nice season. Flannery handled Loyalsock's pressure well and nearly was the hero, scoring on a go-ahead drive with 5.9 seconds remaining. Lewisburg bounced back in impressive fashion, routing Southern Columbia and winning 71-61 at defending District 4 Class AAA champion Milton. Sophomore Sam Allen has been one of the district's best big men this season and scored a career-high 29 points in the Milton win.
4. South Williamsport (9-3): The Mounties did a nice job bouncing back after a heart-breaking 42-39 loss at Neumann last Tuesday. They won two games in the next three nights and rallied in the second half to beat Bloomsburg, 53-40 last Friday. South has performed well in the fourth quarter this season, rallying to win three times. Cody Nelson is one of three Mounties who can do good things in the post and scored a career-high 13 in that win. South is only one game out in the HAC-III and has a big game tonight against Sullivan County. The Mounties won a thriller in Laporte last month, 56-51 in overtime. Thursday brings another challenge when South welcomes Loyalsock.
5. Muncy (8-4): The big question entering the season for Muncy was whether its new starting guards could handle the pressure, especially against district title contending teams. Players like Leone Ghezzi, Derek Sellers and Dalton Smith have responded in impressive fashion and are instrumental to the team's success thus far. Ghezzi was especially impressive last week, scoring 25 points against Neumann and averaging 19 points in three games, two which were wins.
"Leone shot extremely well," Muncy coach Jason Gresh said following the Neumann game. "He did real well for a young guard and has grown up big time."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Alize Johnson, St. John Neumann: The senior center is starting to look like a near-lock to earn all-state honors for a second straight year. He was at his best last week, scoring 47 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and making five steals in that Muncy win. Less than 20 hours later, he scored 20 more in an 88-58 win over Bucktail. The Muncy performance came just three nights after Johnson scored 29 points and recorded another double-double in the 42-39 win over South. In Neumann's toughest HAC-III games thus far, Johnson has averaged 33 points.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Patterson Mill, Md. at St. John Neumann: A Maryland power comes to the Catholic Community Center Saturday afternoon and this should be a fun game to watch. It also is a good test that will help Neumann win or lose. If Neumann reaches the state tournament for a third straight year playing a game like this will prepare it well for the Philadelphia powers it likely would see at some point.