HAZLETON The whistle blew and Alize Johnson slowly walked to the St. John Neumann bench with his shoulders slumped in Friday's PIAA Class A quarterfinal and planted himself onto a red-cushioned chair at Hazleton High School, visibly disappointed. The senior forward had just picked up a fourth foul with 6:07 remaining in the third quarter and his team was about to trail by five points after New Hope Academy's Montrel Morgan hit the second of two free throws.
It could have been very easily a worst-case scenario for St. John Neumann, as it was attempting to advance to the PIAA semifinals and run its unbeaten streak to 30 consecutive games. The Knights had already allowed the first basket in the second half and hadn't scored one of their own as the half reached nearly two minutes deep when Johnson took his lonely walk past the scorer's table.
With their leading scorer on the bench, the Knights once again proved they are more than a one-man band under the toughest of circumstances and quickly erased and then built a lead of their own with Johnson enjoying every second of it from a courtside view.
"It's always scary to take him out, but I do have faith in the guys that are in there," St. John Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "It's nice to be able to take your star out, not that I wasn't still nervous and worried about it, but the other guys really played big today."
There was no panic with the five players on the court as they had experienced losing Johnson in the PIAA second round after the senior took a vicious hit above his eye that resulted in him leaving the game for several minutes. Those short few minutes prepared Neumann for what they faced last night in an atmosphere that was fitting for a PIAA win or go home quarterfinal.
While many may have hoped for the Knights just to keep the game close with Johnson watching, they did much more. Njoku-Ibe Amanze scored back-to-back baskets to pull Neumann to within one point and then Nasza Short gave the Knights the lead soon thereafter. A Kevin Anderson basket pushed the Neumann run to eight consecutive points and its advantage to three.
"Those other guys played the best seven minutes they've probably played all year without Johnson," New Hope Academy coach David Archer said. "They learned do it last game when they played four minutes without him. For them to play, I think it was eight minutes, without him, I think they showed effort."
Not only did the spurt give the Knights a lead, it allowed Petcavage to continue to rest Johnson, getting him fresh for the fourth quarter and protecting that final foul which never came.
The Knights did surrender the lead briefly in the fourth quarter, but trailed by just one before closing the game on a 21-10 push that sealed a 78-68 win.
Short, who attacked the basket with authority when Johnson left the floor, and Amanze combined for 13 third-quarter points. Short, who was also playing with four fouls at the time and was able to avoid a fifth, finished with 13 points while Amanze had 20.
"They made some great plays in the third quarter," said Archer, whose team was outscored 20-14 in the third. "For them to go down one at the half to up five at the end of the third, that was huge for them."
Ryan Reid scored the final Neumann basket in the third quarter when he leaked out on the break and layed in a shot with serious pressure from behind by a New Hope Academy defender. It gave the Knights a seven-point advantage before NaGus Griggs scored to make it a five-point game with eight minutes to play.
Johnson, who picked up his third foul late in the second quarter on an uncharacteristically bad decision when he reached in after a missed free throw, returned with 7:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, missing a total of 6:49 of game time, and tied the game with a free throw with 6:58 left. Freshman Kevin Anderson, who scored three points in the third quarter after Johnson's departure, hit a 3-pointer to give Neumann the lead for the final time and Johnson added 13 points and a pair of assists to Amanze over the final five-plus to help the Knights (30-0) pull away and set up a PIAA semifinal with Math, Civics, and Science, a one-point winner over Church Farm.
While Johnson was on the court to help his team finish off the Mighty Ants, his teammates put him in position with their third-quarter play. Neumann outscored New Hope Academy 20-10 over the final six minutes of the third to keep their season alive and give their star an opportunity to be the closer he is expected to be.
"I was really happy and excited and I was proud of them for what they did when I was out," Johnson said. "It was huge."
Jake Felix is assistant sports editor at The Sun-Gazette and may be reached at email@example.com