Flanked by happy teammates, St. John Neumann forward Nasza Short approached the enthusiastic student section and raised the championship trophy high.
This game, this moment was something players and fans who lined up four hours prior to tip-off for tickets dreamed about. This was a night they would not forget and Short wanted Knight fans everywhere in on the celebration. Spread the word, Neumann is the Heartland Conference's best team.
Short and Alize Johnson recorded double-doubles, Richard Allen played an outstanding game and Neumann did what few outside its school thought it could Monday at Montoursville, dethroning defending champion Loyalsock, 64-58 in the HAC championship. The game sold out 66 minutes before tip-off and fans made it feel bigger than a state championship. Neumann (24-0) made sure its boisterous fans did not leave disappointed.
St. John Neumann players celebrate their victory over?Loyalsock Monday at Montoursville in the Heartland Athletic Conference title game.
"This is probably biggest stage we had and I'm so happy we won," said Allen, who had 15 points and eight rebounds. "We definitely wanted to prove a point. That's the first thing we wanted to do was shut everyone up who said we don't play anybody. Well, we played somebody and we won."
Neumann remained undefeated and beat the state's Nos. 2-3 ranked Class AA teams in a four-night span after downing Lewisburg in Friday's semifinals. The Knights, beat Loyalsock (22-2) for the first time since December of 2005, snapped its 16-game winning streak and became the first District 4 team to defeat it in more than two years.
This always has been one of the area's premier rivalries but it was taken to another level this year as Neumann and Loyalsock entered a combined 45-1. Fans waited in the cold for more than an hour before doors opened and both teams put on a show that exceeded even the lofty pregame expectations.
Neumann dominated the first three quarters and led by 13 entering the fourth before Loyalsock made a furious fourth-quarter rally and pulled within 51-50 with 1:34 remaining. The Lancers have made some huge comebacks in the past against other teams and won.
The Knights showed they are not just another team. Johnson, Allen and Short drained a series of clutch foul shots, Johnson forced a key turnover, the defense turned the pressure up and the state's No. 4-ranked Class A team made a huge statement.
"Them being No. 2 in the state we wanted to show we can play with them and that's what we did. Coach just said nobody is impossible to beat so go out there and have fun and that's what we did," Johnson said. "It's nice coming out and playing in front of all these people. We wanted to match their intensity and come out here and have fun."
"It was a great game on both team's parts and it was good for the area with all the fans here," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "Loyalsock played a great game and I knew they weren't going to quit. They kept coming back and even with four seconds left I told the guys do not celebrate. All the credit to our boys, credit to those boys, they played great."
Loyalsock seemed out of it but in a flash turned the game into a classic. The Lancers scored eight straight points in just 56 seconds and Ben Sosa's 3-point play cut Neumann's big lead to 51-50. A team that was dormant for so long suddenly erupted as Kyle Datres (15 points, 10 rebounds) scored 11 fourth-quarter points and ignited a team that seemed on the verge of a stunning comeback.
When things seemed to be slipping away, though, Neumann stayed calm and answered with some uppercuts of its own in this heavyweight fight. Johnson beat the press and fed Allen for a 3-point play on the ensuing possession. Omar Little (20 points) answered with two foul shots and Johnson hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to make it 55-52.
Seconds later, Johnson made possibly the game's biggest play, swatting the ball from Datres as he appeared going in for a layup and knocking it to Allen. Johnson hit two more foul shots and Loyalsock could not get closer than three points again. After Allen sank two more foul shots, Short grabbed a rebound off a missed 3-point attempt and all but clinched the win, draining another foul shot to make it 62-56 with 14 seconds remaining.
"It was a positive in the game. We dug a hole for ourselves but came back," Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger said. "We'll learn lessons from this and now we're 0-0 and we're starting over. We're going to make this a positive thing going into districts."
Johnson delivered another huge performance, scoring 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking seven shots. He and 6-foot-8 center Njoke Ibe-Amanze made it difficult for Loyalsock to get inside early. Even when the Lancers did, they seemed to alter shots and missed 19 of their first 22. Johnson blocked three shots in a 15-second, second-quarter span and Neumann built a 12-point second-quarter lead.
The only time Loyalsock led was when Datres scored three seconds into the game on a layup. Short set the tone from there and played the game of his life thus far. The junior forward scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dealt four assists while playing outstanding defense. He shined early and his all-around play, combined with Neumann's raucous crowd had the Knights playing as intense and as well as they have all year.
"I felt like we were in a different mode. Big games we've had before have been nothing like this. We've been waiting for this since the summer and we knew this was going to be the sell-out game. This is what we wanted and we got it."
"They're the real deal," Insinger said. "I was highly impressed with their overall play. What a credit to St. John Neumann for their quality of play. I told the boys we lost to a really good team tonight."
Little finished his HAC tournament with 55 points and added six rebounds. Datres hit all four of his shots from the field in the fourth quarter. The Lancers ended the first half on a 9-0 run, cutting a 14-point deficit to five at halftime. Again, though, Neumann never let Loyalsock go on the game-breaking run it has made against so many other teams,
Neumann controlled the third quarter and it seemed the roof might blow off Montoursville's gym when Johnson hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and put it ahead 40-27. A wild fourth-quarter that featured 55 combined points followed but the Knights would not be broken.
After Short hit too more foul shots and a final desperation Loyalsock shot fell short, Allen raised his arms in triumph and was soon engulfed by happy teammates. Since losing to Loyalsock last February, Neumann longed for another shot. The moment came last night and the Knights owned it.
"Everybody stepped up. I've been telling the guys we have to get on a roll and games before we haven't," Johnson said. "We started getting into it when the student section went all out. Them being here and helping us out got us rolling. It was amazing."
Alize Johnson 8 4-5 21, Richard Allen 5 6-8 16, Njoku Ibe-Amanze 0 1-4 1, Kevin Anderson 3 0-0 8, Nasza Short 5 8-11 18, Kamaal Burkholder 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 19-25 64.
Omar Little 6 8-9 20, Kyle Datres 6 1-3 15, Ben Sosa 4 1-1 9, Mike Pastore 2 0-0 5, Tommy Baggett 1 1-2 4, Wes Lapoint 0 0-0 0, Luke Glavin 1 0-0 2, Brennan Casale 0 2-2 2, Marcus Williams 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 13-17 58.
Neumann16 6 18 24-64
Loyalsock6 11 10 31-58
3-pointers: Neumann 3 (Anderson 2, Johnson); Loyalsock 4 (Datres 2, Pastore, Baggett).
Records: Neumann 24-0. Loyalsock 22-2.