HARRISBURG - Blooded seeped through the large band-aid that covered his right eye and part of his nose. St. John Neumann center Alize Johnson needed stitches soon, too.
But the pain hurt so good. Call it a battle scar, a badge of courage that symbolized his and his entire team's performance Tuesday.
Despite taking an elbow to the eye, Johnson scored 25 points while making a huge last-second steal. Neumann overcame a six-point fourth-quarter deficit and edged Phil-Mont Christian, 51-48 in Tuesday's Class AA second-round state tournament game at Central Dauphin East High School.
Alize Johnson (24) and Nasza Short (23) celebrate after St. John Neumann’s second-round win in the PIAA?Class A boys basketball playoffs Tuesday at Central Dauphin East High School. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
The Knights (29-0) reached the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2000, erased the memories of two straight second-round losses and remained undefeated. They did it the hard way too.
"We usually come out strong right off the bat but lately we've been coming out flat but people don't know we can dig in there and get wins," Johnson said after scoring 25 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and dealing three assists. "That's what we proved today."
"We just knew we had to come back," forward Ryan Reid said. "That was the only thing on our mind."
That ability to come back sends Neumann to Friday's quarterfinals where it will face District 3 champion New Hope Academy, a 71-65 winner over Pius X. The site and time are to be determined.
Reid was a huge part of the comeback, as was fellow reserve Kamaal Burkholder. Both made critical steals in the final minute to put Neumann ahead and then keep it there after starters Nasza Short and Njoku-Ibe Amanze (9 rebounds) fouled out. Reid's steal led to Johnson finding Allen for a layup that gave the Knights, a 49-47 lead with 39 seconds remaining, their first since early in the third quarter.
This was the first time in two months the Knights trailed in the fourth quarter but they embraced the challenge. Johnson led the way but a series of players came up big late and Neumann outscored Phil-Mont, 17-7 over the game's final 10 minutes.
"It's nice to know we can overcome the adversity of being down and pull together and move forward," Burkholder said. "It shows that we have a lot of heart and that we fight to get our wins."
Neumann twice trailed by seven, including midway through the second quarter. The Knights regained the lead 32-31 early in the third when Johnson found Allen inside but Johnson took an elbow to the eye and was lost for the next 4 minutes, 22 seconds as the trainer bandaged him up. When Johnson returned, Neumann was down only two but Phil-Mont (20-6) extended the lead to 41-34 soon after.
This was foreign territory, but the Knights showed they are as tough as they are talented.
Phil-Mont went ahead 47-43 with 3:48 when Short fouled out but Neumann did not let it score another field goal and ended the game on an 8-1 run.
Neumann still trailed until Reid made one of the biggest plays in the game, stealing the ball near the 3-point line and finding Johnson who then connected with Allen on the go-ahead basket. Burkholder then delivered another big steal, knocking it to Johnson with 17 seconds left.
Phil-Mont had another chance to take the lead seconds later, but Johnson then made the biggest play of his scholastic career. The senior leader cut off a drive to the basket, knocked the ball loose and made the steal before being fouled. He then hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 4.4 seconds remaining.
Neumann defended well on the game's final sequence and forced Phil-Mont into shooting in front of the 3-point line. Burkholder grabbed the rebound as time expired and Neumann players literally jumped for joy while their finals chanted, "undefeated!"
"It was our quarter. This is what we work for in practice," said Johnson who delivered a short speech before Neumann took the court in the fourth quater. "We kept telling each other we're not getting back on the Trailways (bus) sad. We buckled down and won it in the fourth quarter."
Neumann played much better defense in the second half, allowing only 18 points after trailing 30-28 at halftime. Phil-Mont used an 11-0 run to turn a 17-13 deficit into a 24-17 lead. Reid delivered big at that time too and scored four points while dealing two assists as Neumann fought back.
Kevin Anderson also scored four second-quarter points and dealt four assists. Allen scored 10 points and dealt five assists while helping spark that tenacious second-half defense.
"I reminded them before the fourth quarter that it was like this at Sullivan County (last December). It was nip and tuck there too," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "I told them, 'We're going to win, you just need to do what you need to do. Focus a little bit. Alize came out and took charge we came out and Alize took charge and everybody else did good things and that was the nice thing about them."
Johnson capped a 6-0 run when he hit two free throws and tied the game 47-47 with 2:39 remaining. After he found Allen for the go-ahead basket, Phil-Mont pulled within 49-48 on a Zach Dolton foul shot with 28.9 seconds remaining. It did not put up another shot on its next two possessions, however, thanks to Burkholder and Johnson.
The adversity was high and in Johnson's case so was the pain. But Neumann is still standing.
"Our goal is the state championship but for today our goal was to get to the next round," Petcavage said. "It's big. We can celebrate tonight and get back at it and focused again practice hard (Wednesday)."
Alize Johnson 6 13-25 25, Richard Allen 5 0-0 10, Nasza Short 2 0-0 4, Njoku-Ibe Amanze 2 0-0 4, Kevin Anderson 2 0-0 4, Ryan Reid 2 0-0 4, Kamaal Burkholder 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 13-25 51.
Zach Dolton 5 4-8 16, Sean Grifin 6 1-5 13, Micah Baldez 4 2-3 11, Seth Brandenburg 1 1-2 3, Josh Byrd 0 0-0 0, Osaze Thornton 1 0-0 2, Noah Baldez 1 0-0 3. Totals 18 8-18 48.
Neumann12 16 10 13--51
Phil-Mont 9 21 11 7--48
3-pointers: Phil-Mont 4 (Dolton 2, M. Baldez, N. Baldez.
Records: Neumann 29-0. Phil-Mont 20-6.