Neumann suffers first loss in state quarters

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette
St. John Neumann teammates walk off the court after their loss to Faith Christian Academy in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class A boys basketball tournament Saturday at Pottsville's Martz Hall.

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette St. John Neumann teammates walk off the court after their loss to Faith Christian Academy in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class A boys basketball tournament Saturday at Pottsville's Martz Hall.

POTTSVILLE — St. John Neumann players exited the Martz Hall floor and struggled comprehending what just happened.

The Knights had never felt pain like this all season and did everything possible Saturday at Martz Hall to prevent it from happening. But Faith Christian did what the 27 previous Neu­mann opponents could not.

An impressive streak ended and so did Neumann’s fantastic season. It happened in heartbreaking fashion, too.

Zeke Snowden scored the game’s final four points, including hitting a late go-ahead jumper, and then blocked a potential winning shot with 4.3 seconds remaining as Faith Christian edged Neumann, 44-43, in a Class A state quarterfinal thriller. The Lions (22-4) ad­vanced to Monday’s Eastern Region final and will play Girard College in a District 1 championship rematch. Neumann finished its season 27-1 after reaching the state quarterfinals for a third time in four years and adding to its growing tradition.

“The last one (game) is always hard,” Neumann coach Mike Kirby said. “We were so close, but they just made one more shot than we did.”

Neumann overcame a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the game in the third quarter before falling behind by six again. The Knights then took their first lead in the third quarter’s final seconds. The fourth quarter went back and forth with Neumann taking a four-point lead and then Faith Christian going up one. Kevin Anderson then scored four straight points and Neumann took a 43-40 lead into the final three minutes.

The Lions, however, played excellent defense down the stretch and held Neumann scoreless over the final 3:23. Snowden scored inside with two minutes remaining, making it a one-point game. He then delivered again after a Neumann turnover, hitting what became the game-winning jumper from the right wing with 35 seconds remaining.

Snowden, a 6-foot-5 senior who scored eight of his team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter, spent his entire summer working on a key aspect of his game. And at the perfect moment, all that hard work paid off.

“I worked on my jump shot all summer long, so to knock that shot down was big for me emotionally and helped us get the win,” Snowden said. “All summer I was in the gym working on my jumper. I play a lot in the post but my coaches told me if I want to get to the next level I have to have a consistent jump shot and that’s what I did all summer and it’s working for me.”

Neumann turned the ball over again and Faith Christian worked the clock inside 15 seconds. Jaiden Lynch (9 points, 4 rebounds), however, made a clutch steal along the sideline with 11.4 seconds remaining. Ander­son was fouled attacking the basket, but missed both shots. Noah Persun (9 points, 5 rebounds) grabbed the rebound and looked like he might have an easy putback. As quickly as Persun went up, though, Snowden closed out and blocked the shot out of bounds.

The Knights had one last chance off the inbounds play, but Faith Christian defended well and forced Anderson to try a difficult 3-pointer from the corner. It was on target but short as time expired and Faith Christian reached its first Final 4 two years after winning just eight games.

“I really don’t remember what happened. He missed his free throw and he (Persun) got the ball and then I was the closest person so I had to go up and get it,” Snowden said. “Fortunately the clock ran out soon after and that was the game. It was definitely pure joy because we’re in the Final 4 so that’s good for us and good for the school. To be in this position is great exposure for our whole team.”

“I always tell them they have to keep their poise and their composure. I want them staying focused and concentrating and not being worried about making mistakes,” Faith Christian coach Tony DaCosta said. “Just keep your focus and concentration on your responsibilities of the game and nothing anything else. When we do that it helps us tremendously execute what we want to late in the game.”

Neumann executed well, too. The Knights simply struggled from the field. Neumann made only 6 of 26 first-half shots and Faith Christian built an early 10-0 lead. The Knights made 7 of 10 third-quarter shots and took their first lead but went cold again, going 2 for 10 from the field.

Despite all that, Neumann still nearly won. The Knights adjusted well defensively and switched defenses after the taller Lions pounded the ball inside early. They cooled off Faith Christian and cut the deficit to six at halftime. Neumann rallied again in the third and fourth quarters and nearly prevailed in the final 11 seconds after being down one and not having the ball.

It was obviously not the ending Neumann wanted, but the way the Knights lost said as much about them as any victory ever could,

“They always fight. That (giving in) is not even a thought process with them,” Kirby said. “We never got rattled. We just changed some things up. There was never any panic all the way to the end. It was just a matter of us doing what we do, but they just made one more shot in the end.”

Neumann ran good offenses throughout the game, but shots that fell most of the season stopped dropping. The Knights were 1 for 10 from 3-point range and several 3-pointers and close-range shots just rolled off the rim or went in and out. Still, the Knights felt good trailing by just six at halftime and went on the attack immediately in the third quarter, scoring six straight quick points and tying it. After Faith Christian went back by up six, Neumann closed on an 8-0 run with Anderson feeding Jaiden Lynch for a layup at the buzzer.

Persun scored off a putback 30 seconds into the fourth quarter and gave Neumann its biggest lead, 38-34. Anderson’s coast-to-coast drive had Neumann back up 43-40 with 3:23 remaining but the Knights did not score again as Faith Christian efficiently ran clock and chipped away. The Lions are an up-tempo team that likes to press but changed that strategy early after Anderson repeatedly beat the press and the move paid dividends as Neumann was held to its second fewest points this season.

“I’ve seen coaches lose because they’re stubborn. Rather than saying this is how we play, we have to make adjustments,” said DaCosta, who played at Christ the King in high school and in the NCAA Tournament with Boston University during college. “I know what it’s like to experience this time of year and I just want these guys to have that same opportunity.”

Anderson was spectacular in his final game. The Dela­ware-bound senior capped off one of the best years in area history by scoring a game-high 19 points, grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds and adding a game-high four assists. A virtual lock for Class A first team all-state again and a possible Player of the Year, Anderson also made three steals, blocked two shots and scored 13 second-half points as Neumann fought back.

Anderson was part of Neumann teams the last four years that went 108-5. This season was one of the best Neumann has experienced as it won a fifth straight district championship and beat four district champions throughout the season. Yesterday’s ending stings, but time will ease the pain. Those memories made will last a lifetime.

“They never give up,” Kirby said. “They’re warriors … absolute warriors.”

FAITH CHRISTIAN (44)

Zeke Snowden 8 0-1 16, Landon Coyle 1 0-0 2, Charles Ervin 1 1-2 3, Miki Vitek 4 0-0 8, Darius Forney 5 0-0 12, Anthony Sessa 1 0-0 3. Totals 20 1-3 44.

NEUMANN (43)

Kevin Anderson 6 4-6 19, Jaiden Lynch 4 1-2 9, Jaiden Cioffi 1 2-2 4, Noah Persun 4 1-4 9, Andrew Fish 1 0-0 2, Anthony Marrazzo 0 0-0 0, Reid Parrish 0 0-0 0. Totals 17 8-14 43.

F. Christian 18 7 9 10–44

Neumann 12 7 17 7–43

3-pointers: Faith Christian 3 (Forney 2, Sesso); Neumann 1 (Anderson).

Records: Faith Christian 22-4. Neumann 27-1.

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