ENOLA St. John Neumann had been perfect for 30 games during the 2013-14 season and the Knights added another half of basketball to the streak on Tuesday night in the PIAA Class A semifinal game against Math, Civics & and Science.
Sixteen minutes stood between the continuation of a perfect season and the school's first appeararance in a PIAA championship game. Those season-long goals were within grasp before MC&S shattered those championship dreams and the unbeaten season with a near flawless second half during a 76-53 victory.
"It's hard to fall this short at this point," said St. John Neumann coach Paul Petcavage, whose team led the Mighty Elephants, 41-38 at the half. "It's tough to get this close to that and not be able to pull it off."
The St. John Neumann bench watches the end of their loss to Philadelphia’s Math, Civics &?Science Tuesday night at East Pennsboro High School in the PIAA?Class A?semifinals. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
MC&S (15-14), from Philadelphia's District 12, will play once-beaten District 7 champion Lincoln Park in the PIAA Class A championship at 2 on Friday in Hershey.
Neumann fans, who filled the majority of the gymnasium at East Pennsboro High School minus a small pocket of MC&S supporters, had their eyes on that title game this season as their team kept clicking off victories. They were a half away from counting win No. 31 and making travel plans to Hershey when their season began to unravel.
The Mighty Elephants held the Knights to just 12 second-half points and turned a one-time eight-point deficit into a 23-point victory. The District 12 champions took control of the game with a 9-0 run to end the third quarter for a 55-47 lead. St. John Neumann, which scored 41 first-half points, never could find the same rhythm offensively in the second half due to errant shots and turnovers caused by relentless MC&S pressure. The Knights were held to two third-quarter field goals and were held scoreless over the final 4:11 of the quarter.
"My guys underestimated them a little," MC&S coach Danny Jackson said. "We've been preaching it to them the last couple of days. We made some adjustments in the second half and added some full-court pressure and we were successful."
One of the biggest blows to the Neumann psyche was a 3-pointer by Louis Myers, who Jackson called one of the best catch-and-shoot shooters in Philadelphia. It bounced high above the glass after hitting the rim and appeared to roll over the top of the backboard and into the extension. The 3-pointer was ruled good by the officials, despite the protests from Petcavage and 90 percent of the near-capacity crowd.
"That just got us extra motivated," 6-foot-9 center Mike Watkins said. "It gave us an extra motor to play harder."
MC&S closed the third quarter with an old-fashioned 3-point play as Samir Doughty drove to the lane and took the contact and made the ensuing free throw for a 55-47 lead.
Neumann's offense continued to struggle in the fourth quarter and the MC&S lead only grew as the seconds began to tick down on Neumann's historic season. The Knights attempted to pressure MC&S into mistakes, but every Neumann score was met with a score by the Mighty Elephants. For the first time all season, the key stops didn't come and there was no rally.
"The first half we were a lot more patient and then the second half we got a lot more impatient," Petcavage said. "We started taking shots we shouldn't have taken and once we did that they are going to go and that is what hurt us. And then we were dribbling the ball too much and they came up and stripped us and once they get that rolling, it's hard to stop that."
Alize Johnson made it a 10-point game with 3:34 remaining, scoring Neumann's first field goal over an 8-minute stretch. Watkins scored the next five points for MC&S to stretch the lead and reality was slowly setting in for the Knights. There was not going to be a win No. 31.
Petcavage pulled his players out, including Johnson who exited by himself with 54.2 seconds remaining to an appreciative crowd which saluted one of the greatest players in Knights history. They gave him a standing ovation as he received pats on his back from coaches and walked down the bench to thank some of his teammates.
Johnson finished his final game in a Knights' uniform with another double-double, 18 points, 10 rebounds. Kamaal Burkholder matched a season high with 11 points, including 10 off the bench in the first half to help Neumann to its largest lead of eight points in the second quarter. The senior hit a pair of 3-pointers, one each in the first and second quarters.
"I was just happy to give my team an offensive spark," Burkholder said. "Once I hit that first one I felt confident to keep going on."
Burkholder was limited to just a free throw in the second half as the Mighty Elephants put their clamps on the Knights, holding them to four second-half field goals.
Nazeer Bostick, who missed the Sullivan County victory in the second round, proved to be a difference-maker for MC&S against the Knights. The sophomore had 17 points and was part of a rotation that took their turn at attempting to slow Johnson. Doughty also added 17 points and Watkins, a Penn State commit for 2015, added 15 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks.
"He played within himself," said Jackson on Watkins. "He didn't try to do too much or too less. He wanted the ball and we gave him the ball and tonight he finished the play."
And in turn finished Neumann.
Mike Watkins 7 1-6 15, Sami Doughty 7 3-7 17, Keith Griffin 0 0-0 0, Kamari Peel 1 0-0 2, Louis Myers 3 1-2 9, Tyrese Hester 2 2-2 8, Donovan Barnes 1 3-4 5, Calil Moultrie 0 1-2 1, Nazeer Bostick 7 2-4 17, Luis Reyes 1 0-0 2, Saheed Peoples 0 0-0 0. Totals: 29 13-27 76.
St. John Neumann (53)
Alize Johnson 6 5-9 18, Richard Allen 2 4-4 8, Kevin Anderson 2 4-5 9, Nasza Short 1 1-4 3, Njoku-Ibe Amanze 1 0-0 2, Ryan Reid 0 2-2 2, Noah Beiter 0 0-0 0, Kamaal Burkholder 4 1-2 11, Luke Iarkowski 0 0-0 0, Cody Forsburg 0 0-0 0, Isaac Beiter 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 16-27 53.
MC&S15 23 17 21 76
St. John Neumann20 21 6 6 53
3-point goals: MC&S 5 (Myers 2, Hester 2, Bostick); St. John Neumann 4 (Burkholder 2, Johnson, Anderson).
Records: MC&S 15-14, St. John Neumann 30-1. Next: MC&S vs. Lincoln Park, 2 p.m., Friday at Hersheypark (PIAA Class A championship)