Njoku Ibe-Amanze draws attention. Whether it is opposing players looking up at the 6-foot-8 center or friends swarming him after games, Amanze's magnetism is nearly as big as he is.
He only moved from Nigeria to the United States last year, but literally and figuratively, Amanze is a big deal.
Amanze also played a pivotal role in helping St. John Neumann capture a second straight District 4 Class A championship. Since mid-season, the raw but imposing center has made an impact and he played his best game in Friday's 61-48 championship win over Sullivan County. Amanze scored 11 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots as Neumann (27-0) stayed undefeated and became the first team in program history to repeat as district champions.
"My teammates have helped me a lot," Amanze said. "It's an honor to play with my team and my school. I appreciate them all."
It has been quite a journey for an athlete who looks like a man but is only a teenage sophomore. Basketball is not popular in Nigeria and Amanze did not play much while living there.
Actually, Amanze considers himself more of a soccer player. That is the sport he has played his whole life. Still, it is basketball that could be a bright part of Amanze's future.
Amanze has played only 16 high school games but can be quite a difference maker. He has not scored much, but his presence alone makes an impact. Height cannot be coached and Amanze provides a big inside presence, especially when playing alongside 6-5 Alize Johnson. Together, those two can make it difficult to drive into the lane and Amanze can alter as many shots as he blocks.
As expected, Amanze has been up and down at times but when he is on, Neumann is especially dangerous. That was the case against Sullivan as Amanze came off the bench to score six second-quarter points and grab three rebounds after Sullivan had trimmed a nine-point deficit to one. Amanze also grabbed an offensive rebound in the half's final minutes, hitting two ensuing foul shots and helping the Knights take an eight-point halftime lead.
"The more experience and exposure, I get the better I am playing," Amanze said. "I'm getting there. I'm working hard to get better."
"His presence is huge," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "They have to pay attention to him in the paint and that frees everyone else up."
Amanze showed nice touch around the basket, a huge plus moving forward. If Friday was his breakout performance, Neumann might have its best chance to get past the state tournament's second round since 2000. He has made his biggest impact in some of his team's biggest games too, grabbing seven rebounds against Loyalsock in the Heartland Conference championship while giving the Lancers fits as Neumann won 64-58 against the state's No. 2-ranked Class AA team.
He might be new to basketball, but Amanze seems to sense when the games matter most. What a weapon, Neumann could be possessing as it enters Friday's opening state playoff game against Greenwood.
"I love that kid, I love him," point guard Richard Allen said after his 20-point performance. "He's been showing a lot of potential and he's becoming one of our permanent big men that we need in there."
Watch Amanze interact with his teammates and one would think he has played with them his entire life. He has assimilated well and the Knights have embraced him with open arms. So too have Neumann students and fans who often gravitate toward him after games.
"He's meshed in great. We treat him like family. We just love him like he was a part of this last year too," Allen said. "He smiles and has fun and when we have fun he does good and when he does good it makes us happy."
And that is quite a big deal.
Johnson played another outstanding game and recorded his fifth straight postseason double-double. The senior center actually was just two assists from earning his second straight triple-double. Still, Sullivan forward Jordan Beinlich delivered one of the year's best defensive performances against one of the state's best players.
Beinlich held Johnson to a season-low 10 points. The all-state senior dealt eight assists and still made a big impact but Beinlich did not let him erupt the way he has so often this season. He swarmed Johnson, averaging 24 points per game, all night and surrendered just three field goals. It was especially impressive after Johnson scored 33 points against Sullivan in their previous game.
Beinlich has become one of the area's best defenders. He helped Sullivan (19-6) reach the final after holding 1,000-point Galeton scorer Dakota Shadle to two points over the final three quarters in a 44-29 semifinal win.
"We definitely had a game plan to try and keep Alize from going off for 30 or 40 and I was going to mix up Jordan and Adam (Szklanka), but Jordan did such a good job I never thought to switch," Sullivan coach Glenn Vaughan said. "He is a guy that can take the opponent's best player out of the game sometimes which gives us the opportunity to compete in (Friday's) case and a chance to play and win big games."
Former Williamsport starter Nadir Boone came up big Saturday, playing his best game since joining Lewisburg at midseason. The junior forward was a huge reason, Lewisburg overcame an eight-point second-quarter deficit and dethroned two-time defending District 4 Class AA champion Loyalsock, 61-45. The Green Dragons (23-3) snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Lancers, became the first District 4 Class AA team to beat them in two years and captured their first district title since 2000.
"It's real nice just to be part of this team," Boone said. "They've welcomed me and treat me like one of their own. I like it a lot here."
Lewisburg really liked Boone Saturday. Loyalsock (24-3) led 19-11 after a quarter and Lewisburg leading scorer and rebounder Sam Allen was on the bench the whole second quarter with two fouls. Boone, though, helped Lewisburg turn a negative into a positive. He and Nick Costagliola started taking over the game and ignited a game-changing 17-2 run as Lewisburg never trailed again.
Boone was outstanding, scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds in the first half and his defense on Omar Little also was a huge boost.
"With Sam in foul trouble Nadir did a great job on Omar and gave us some putbacks," Lewisburg coach John Vaji said. "That was a real calming factor on the floor with what he gave us in the first half."
Boone obviously has a lot of potential, opening his season in Williamsport's starting lineup. Still, joining a new team with a new system halfway through the season was a difficult challenge. He showed glimpses of what he do down the stretch but Saturday, everything seemed to come together. Strong, athletic and quick, Boone did a little bit of everything in the second quarter and his consecutive putbacks gave Lewisburg its first lead.
The learning curve has been steep at times, but Boone is coming on strong. And when his team needed him most Saturday, he was at this best.
"When I first came it was kind of hard but now into the season I pretty much have it down," Boone said. "(Saturday), I'd say was my best game yet."
A year ago, Galeton trailed Sullivan County 41-3 at halftime of a District 4 Class A quarterfinal. The Tigers were making their first playoff appearance in four years but seemed out of their element.
A year later, Galeton appears right at home in the postseason. The Tigers are now one of the big boys and are state tournament-bound for the first time since 2003.
Galeton defeated Mansfield, 57-46 in overtime Saturday to put an exclamation point on this big comeback season. The Tigers (20-5) also won a 20th game for the first time in 11 years, outscored Mansfield 11-0 in overtime and made a big statement about how far its program has come. Galeton has won 13 of its last 15 games and plays District 11 champion Mahanoy Area in Friday's state tournament opener.
Dakota Shadle has had a big season, scoring his 1,000th career point last January. He was at his best Saturday, scoring 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Jake Batterson scored 15 points and hit big shots as he did in a district quarterfinal win over Millville and Bob Williams grabbed 13 rebounds while blocking five shots.
Dr. Masse's Final
1. St. John Neumann; 2. Lewisburg; 3. Loyalsock; 4. Sullivan County; 5. Galeton
Players of the Week
Jesse Flannery, Lewisburg and Alize Johnson, Neumann
Flannery brilliantly ran Lewisburg's offense in two playoff wins while adding excellent defense. Statistics do not measure what Flannery means to Lewisburg, but he did scored 21 points, deal 11 assists and help the Dragons win two games by 30 combined points. Johnson was his dominant self, scoring 34 points, grabbing 28 rebounds, dealing 18 assists and adding five steals as Neumann repeated.