Neumann boys can also win with defense

Entering the District 4 Class A final, St. John Neumann was averaging 66 points per game. It had topped 50 points in all 25 games too.

Then the Knights went out and scored 37 points. And they still won.

That win last Saturday against defending champion Sullivan County might not have been the prettiest, but it epitomized who this Neumann team is. The Knights (23-2) are district champions for the first time since 2000 because they are talented and hard-working. More than anything, they are tough.

“When they light themselves up and you see that fire in their eyes that says, ‘we’re not losing this game,’ that’s fun to watch,” Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. “It’s not something I can give them, that’s something that’s inside you.”

Neumann could do little right in the first half while Sullivan (22-3) dominated. The Knights made just 4 of 27 shots and Sullivan built a 20-10 halftime lead. The Griffins still led by 10 midway through the third quarter, but Neumann never buckled.

No matter the situation, these players believe they will find a way to win. They have proven it all year, frequently coming back to do so, including in both playoff games. Instead of getting mad, Neumann grows more intense, more determined.

It happened again last Saturday as the team shined when the pressure was highest. Ryan Reid put Neumann ahead to stay midway through the fourth quarter while every player did his part down the stretch to secure a 37-32 win. The Knights, the only team that has beaten Sullivan County, play Harrisburg Christian in their state tournament opener Friday, back at Montoursville.

“We deal well with adversity,” said point guard Richard Allen, who tied the game with a steal and layup in the fourth quarter. “We said, ‘we don’t want silver anymore so we have to pull it out,’ and we pulled something out.”

“We don’t like losing,” Reid said.

That mentality helped Neumann start 18-0, the best opening act in school history. It also has revealed itself in just about every big game the team has played. In the season’s first 12 games, Neumann traveled to Sullivan, Muncy and Lourdes, the three other district semifinalists. The gyms were packed and most of the fans against them but the Knights won each time by double figures.

The biggest win came in January at Sullivan. The Griffins swept three games from Neumann last year, including in the district final. The Knights made a statement that cold night in Laporte as Alize Johnson hit six 3-pointers and Neumann won, 67-56. A mental hurdle had been cleared and Neumann still is the only team to win in Sullivan’s gym the last two seasons.

That win looked like it might not mean as much, though, when Sullivan dominated the first half last Saturday. A team that has four players averaging in double figures scored just 10 first-half points. A lot of teams might have been flustered and would have panicked. Neumann had a different response.

“When we came in at halftime you could see the steam coming off their heads. They were mad,” Petcavage said. “But they knew what they had to do and they were ready to do it.”

Cole started changing things when he hit consecutive 3-pointers. Then Johnson hit the boards hard, Allen ran the offense efficiently, Tyree Vidal made one hustle play after another, Noah Beiter played relentless defense and Reid sparked off the bench. Everything came together at the most opportune time.

Neumann never stopped believing. All along, the Knights remained confident the championship would be theirs.

“We knew we could play better and should be playing better. It’s not a good time to have an off-game,” Cole said. “Everyone did a great job in the second half and we played great defense and I’m proud of everyone.”

The Knights’ resiliency was born last year when it made a 16-win improvement, going from 2-20 to district runner-up and the state’s Sweet 16. Neumann overcame an 11-point second-half deficit to beat Mahanoy Area in the first round of states last year when Johnson found Vidal at the buzzer. A year later, that desire and never-say-die mentality has grown even stronger.

It might not always be the same person, but Neumann consistently has had someone deliver something key at a crucial time in a big game. The results speak for themselves as Neumann is a district champion for the first time in 13 years and has more wins than any Neumann team since 2002.

“It just shows we’re mentally tough to withstand adversity,” Cole said.

That is the Neumann way.