Nigerian transfer making most of his basketball season

He knew what would happen, but Njoku-Ibe Amanze welcomed it.

Following practice Thursday, the St. John Neumann center asked coach Paul Petcavage if he could keep working. Petcavage obliged. The pounding soon began.

“I had Kamaal (Burkholder) beat him up for a little bit and push him around and knock him around,” Petcavage said. “That’s what you have to get used to. He pretty much does that every practice and there have even been weekends when he wants to come in and works too.”

Since arriving from Nigeria last year, Amanze has embraced working overtime. He is physically imposing and stands 6-foot-8. But after never having played much basketball before coming to America, Amanze understood the only way he could make an impact was to work. And then keep working when nobody else is watching.

Now, at the perfect time, Amanze’s dedication is paying off. The sophomore novice delivered a breakthrough performance that was crucial to helping Neumann defeat New Hope Academy, 78-68 in Friday’s Class A state quarterfinals. It was a complete team effort, but the Knights (30-0) likely would not be advancing to the Final 4 Tuesday against Math, Civics and Sciences had Amanze not played so well.

Playing in only his 19th organized basketball game, Amanze scored a career-high 20 points, grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds and blocked five shots as Neumann reached its first Eastern Region championship since 1972. Throughout the season, Amanze has shown flashes of potential and Friday he put it all together.

“We knew he could play and we kept working hard with him,” forward Nasza Short said. “Now he’s showing what he can do.”

“Amanze played a great game,” forward Alize Johnson said. “He played physical down low and I think he had a huge game. That helped a lot.”

This was the kind of performance Neumann had envisioned since Amanze arrived last fall. Paired with the 6-6 Johnson, who has had one of the most dominant seasons in Neumann history, Amanze gives the Knights one of the state’s most formidable inside tandems. He showed how explosive that can make the Knights by coming alive at such a pivotal time.

Amanze’s previous high for points was 11 and he surpassed that in the third quarter. That was the same quarter that Johnson missed nearly completely after picking up his fourth foul and exiting with Neumann down five. Instead of the Knights wilting, they erupted and Amanze was a huge reason why, scoring five third-quarter points while helping Neumann go on a 20-8 run.

When Johnson returned in the fourth quarter, the Knights were especially tough to stop and Amanze scored seven more points while clinching the win with a thunderous dunk. Unlike previous games, Amanze seemed at ease inside. He wanted the ball and knew what to do with it when he received it. He even delivered a perfect pass to Johnson for a second-quarter layup that elicited oohs and aahs from the Neumann fans.

“He was pretty unstoppable,” guard Kevin Anderson said. “If he stays focused and plays smart he’s tough to stop. That makes us tough because now we have another big man with Alize.”

Amanze also was tough on the boards and his inside presence was a huge factor defensively. In previous games, Amanze sometimes would be drawn out against fellow big men and then watch them go by. This time, he listened to his coaches who told him it was unlikely his opponent would be shooting from there. Amanze stayed inside and blocked two shots while altering some others.

Just as important, Amanze was in the paint instead of on the perimeter when shots went up and was able to reach a career-high in rebounds. Amanze has been progressing throughout the postseason and has 29 rebounds in three state tournament games. But if he can build off Friday’s performance and stay under control, Neumann becomes a much more dangerous team Tuesday against the state’s top-ranked Eastern team.

“He’s been working hard in practice. He and coach are working a lot on post moves,” Johnson said. “It really came into effect (Friday). He really did a fantastic job.”

Amanze is a physical specimen, tall and strong. Still, he would not be able to make an impact so soon without having an old-school work ethic. He still has a long way to go too and is learning each practice and each game. Amanze has only scratched the surface of his potential.

And that is what has to have Neumann fans so excited.

“His offensive game is coming together,” Petcavage said. “He works every night after practice to work on his inside stuff. He’s come along very well.”

He is bruised, but Amanze is still standing. And so is Neumann, the first District 4 team to reach the Final 4 since Hughesville in 2009. He might be new to America, but Amanze knows glory comes with a price.

And every day he pays it.