HAZLETON - As Njoku-Ibe Amanze threw down a thunderous dunk in Friday's final minute, St. John Neumann fans rose and applauded. The Hazleton gym seats more than 3,000 and Neumann is a tiny school but the noise made shouting the only form of communication.
The noise grew louder as time ticked away and Neumann players joyfully ran toward each other at midcourt. It seemed the message those fans delivered was clear.
Spread the news - Neumann is Final 4-bound. The little school is doing big things.
Njoku Ibe-Amanze of St. John Neumann dunks Friday night vs. New Hope Academy at Hazleton High School in the PIAA?Class A boys basketball quarterfinals.
Alize Johnson recorded his eighth straight postseason double-double, Amanze delivered a breakthrough performance and Neumann again showed how complete and tenacious it is by overcoming a five-point third-quarter deficit and beating New Hope Academy, 78-68 in the Class A state quarterfinals.
"It's really great. We work hard for this every day in practice," said Johnson, who scored 28 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dealt four assists despite playing only three quarters due to foul trouble. "For us to be right here, right now is huge and I just want to keep pushing and try and go as far as we can."
Neumann (30-0) tries doing so Tuesday against Math, Civics and Sciences, a 47-46 winner over Church Farm, a time and place to be determined. The Knights are headed to the Eastern Region final for the first time in 32 years and again extended their undefeated season the hard way.
If the first 28 games revealed how good Neumann is, the last two have revealed how complete and determined it is after it again overcame a second-half deficit. Johnson picked up his fourth foul just 53 seconds into the third quarter and New Hope lead 40-35 when he exited. Instead of wilting, the Knights outscored the Mighty Ants 20-12 the rest of the quarter and never trailed by less than one again.
Amanze scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, both career-highs, while being a force inside. Nasza Short scored nine of his 13 points in the third quarter and guards Richard Allen and Kevin Anderson steadied the offense.
"We were thinking we all have to step up," Anderson said. "We knew Alize wasn't out there to score so we knew we all had to step up and score and that's what we did."
Neumann extended the lead to seven late in the third quarter before New Hope regained a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter of a game that featured 54 fouls and 78 free throws.
Like Tuesday against Phil-Mont Christian, however, Neumann took control over the game's final five minutes. Anderson hit a go-ahead 3-pointer that put Neumann ahead to stay 61-58 with 5:23 remaining. That ignited a game-ending 20-10 run against a team that had owned the fourth quarter in its two previous state tournament games.
"Every team knows now it's not just Alize. We have other players that can do the job and we showed that tonight," said Short, who played brilliant in the third quarter despite having four fouls. "Our whole starting five is tough and so is our bench."
Johnson returned 42 seconds into the fourth quarter and made a huge impact, scoring 11 points and dealing three assists down the stretch. He found Amanze three times for baskets, the last one, the huge dunk that clinched the win with 30 seconds remaining and sent Neumann fans into delirium.
Amanze played the game of his life and showed how dangerous he can be and scored seven fourth-quarter points. He and Johnson controlled the inside and Allen provided a calm hand running the offense while dealing six assists and grabbing four rebounds.
Throughout the season, Neumann has seemed at its best when adversity is highest. That was never more evident than last night against the District 3 champion.
"The whole team came through," said Neumann coach Paul Petcavage, a starter on the last Neumann team to reach the Final 4. "We really do have a will not to lose and even though we're down and might be feeling like things aren't going our way, they have an ability to bounce back pretty quickly and focus on what they have to do to get back in the game."
Kamaal Burkholder was huge off the bench, grabbing seven second-half rebounds. His assist to Johnson put Neumann up 63-58 and New Hope pulled within three only one more time. A Michael Coleman 3-pointer cut the Neumann lead to 69-65 with 1:39 remaining before Johnson hit a foul shot, Allen grabbed a rebound and Johnson hit two more free throws.
Johnson's putback with 53 seconds remaining put Neumann ahead 74-67 and the clincher came 23 seconds later as Amanze put an exclamation point on his and Neumann's breakthrough.
"This is great," Short said. "We've been wanting this since Day 1 when we first started practicing."
The bench came up big again at key times. Cody Forsburg hit a pivotal 3-pointer to stop a New Hope second-quarter run and pull Neumann within two while Ryan Reid's layup put it ahead 55-48 late in the third. Both prevented New Hope from doing damage when starters were on the bench in foul trouble.
Nothing came easy and nothing great ever really does. But just like their fans, Neumann is still standing. It is right where it wants to be, one of the state's top four teams.
"This is huge to get to this level," Petcavage said. "This is big."
Alize Johnson 5 17-25 28, Richard Allen 2 2-2 6, Nasza Short 4 5-9 13, Njoku Ibe-Amanze 6 8-13 20, Kevin Anderson 2 1-2 6, Ryan Reid 1 0-0 2, Kamaal Burkholder 0 0-0 0, Cody Forsburg 1 0-0 3. Totals 21 32-51 78.
NEW HOPE (68)
Montrel Morgan 7 13-13 27, NaGus Griggs 2 5-5 9, Michael Coleman 4 1-3 13, Kareem Oden 4 4-4 12, Jermari Murphy 0 0-0 0, Ny'Kam Beverly 1 0-0 2, James Wilson 0 1-2 1, Elliott Wilson 0 0-0 0, Eddie Jimenez 2 0-0 4. Totals 20 24-26 68.
Neumann16 19 20 23-78
New Hope15 21 12 20-68
3-pointers: Neumann 3 (Johnson, Anderson, Forsburg); New Hope 4 (Coleman 4).
Records: Neumann 30-0. New Hope 16-10.