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Decade’s best No. 1: St. John Neumann’s Alize Johnson was one of the county’s best basketball players

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series looking back at the Top 10 boys basketball teams, coaches, games and players from the last decade.

Alize Johnson currently plays for the Indiana Pacers. He is Lycoming County’s only NBA Draft selection. A two-time all-state honoree and Missouri Valley Conference all-star, Johnson has built one of the most impressive basketball legacies in area history.

But ask most who know Johnson best and basketball often becomes a secondary topic. Basketball is what he plays, but not who Johnson is.

“Alize is gracious to everybody. People come up to him and I know he doesn’t have a clue who they are and they wish him good luck and he takes the time to say something nice to them and will spend a couple minutes with them,” former St. John Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said in 2014. “He’s just a good individual and everyone likes him.”

“He brings nothing but positives to a team and the community,” former Lewisburg all-state center Sam Allen, an AAU teammate of Johnson’s said the night he was drafted. “His playing style is unselfish, but also he’s an off the court chemistry guy. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t liked him.”

Johnson has used his basketball success to become a community ambassador and role model, starting his “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” foundation, almost immediately after the Pacers drafted him. Johnson has donated money, helped construct NBA-sized courts in Williamsport, fed the hungry and created better opportunities for local youth athletes.

Johnson shines as bright off the court as he does on it. And that is mighty impressive because he glows like the sun when playing. Johnson established himself as one of the area’s all-time greats at St. John Neumann, going from a 5-foot-9 freshman point guard to a 6-6 all-state center. Johnson helped Neumann go from 2-20 that freshman season to a 30-1 Class A state semifinalist as a senior. Johnson was the driving force behind that remarkable resurgence, helping Neumann capture two District 4 championships and reach the second round of states or beyond in his final three years there.

Johnson grew literally and figuratively every year. He was 6-1 as a sophomore, 6-5 as a junior and 6-6 as a senior. His mix of guard skills in a post player’s body made him the ultimate weapon and Johnson was virtually unstoppable as a junior and senior, easily averaging double-doubles each year. Johnson was the state’s most valuable Class A player in 2014 and he ushered in a dominant era for Neumann which continues to this day.

He became a basketball giant, dazzling, leading and competing with the ferocity of a hungry lion. And yet he remained gentle along the way.

“We held Alize to around 20 points. However, he dissected us with his pin-point passing,” North Penn-Mansfield coach Kipper Burleigh said leading up to the draft. “He found open teammates every time we doubled him and finished with 13 or so assists. More importantly, my players commented on how nice and humble he was on the court, a truly classy young man.”

Johnson started growing from a boy into a man during that rocky freshman season. The Knights struggled, but Johnson showed signs of promise and looked like a future start once he adjusted to the speed of the high school game. After growing four inches by his sophomore year, Johnson became and outstanding wing player, stuffing the stat sheet as Neumann made a 16-win improvement, reaching the district semifinal. Johnson helped deliver Neumann its first state tournament win since 2002, finding Tyree Vidal for a buzzer-beater in a first-round win against Mahanoy Area. Another four-inch growth spurt followed and Johnson combined his guard skills with potent post moves to form a devastating combination and become one of the state’s best centers as a junior and senior.

“Playing as a guard all the way up has helped out tremendously,” Johnson said in 2013. “I still have that ability and I’m just trying to work on my post play and put it all together.

He did. Every night.

Johnson averaged 18 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and three steals per game, becoming the undisputed team leader and helping Neumann go 25-3. The Knights captured their first district championship since 2000 and Johnson hurt opponents in every possible.

Like all the great players in this Top 10 list, Johnson was at his best in his team’s most important games. Harrisburg Christian had no answer for him in the opening round of states as Johnson torched it for 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the convincing win. Just as impressive, Johnson went 12 for 12 from the field. His inside moves were lethal, but Johnson also could take his game outside and made five straight 3-pointers in a midseason win against defending district champion Sullivan County.

These were great performances, but they also the new norm. Johnson erupted for 27 points, 18 rebounds, six steals in four assists in a HAC-III championship-clinching win against Muncy and closed his season with a double-double against powerhouse Math, Civics and Sciences.

“Alize is one of those players where he can take over the game with his ability and his voice as well,” defensive stopper Noah Beiter said following the Harrisburg Christian win. “He’s a good leader on and off the court. He’s always trying to help us improve our game in practice and in the games.”

“His mindset is great right now. What makes a player great is how well you bring everyone up to your level and he’s done a great job of that,” Petcavage said. “He’s brought everyone up. They all know he will give the ball up if they get open, but an still take over a game if he has to.”

The only thing greater than Johnson’s ability was his fortitude. Johnson elevated Neumann throughout his senior year as it won its first 30 games, romped to another district championship and reached the state Final Four for the first time since 1972.

And one night, he delivered what may have been the decade’s best individual performance. Playing at Muncy against a team coming off consecutive state tournament appearances, Johnson left teammates, the opposition and fans in awe. That night, Johnson scored 47 points, a decade Lycoming County-high, grabbed 13 rebounds, deal four assists and made four steals in a 79-70 win. Johnson was 16 of 29 from the field, drained four 3-pointers and went 13 of 15 at the foul line. Oh yeah, he played all 32 minutes a day after having the flu.

“He’s just not going to lose. He’s just so focused,” Petcavage said. “When it comes down to crunch time and he see it’s slipping away or it’s too close for his comfort you can just see it in his face. He digs in and takes over.”

“He’s long and he’s quick and that’s a tough matchup for anybody,” Muncy coach Jason Gresh said. “He put on a show.”

That show lasted 31 games that season with Johnson putting together one of the most dominant seasons in area history. He averaged 24 points, 16 rebounds and five assists per game, going into Superman mode in the playoffs when he recorded eight double-doubles in nine games, including a triple-double in a district semifinal comeback win against North Penn-Mansfield. Johnson overpowered both Class AAA state-ranked Lewisburg and Loyalsock in the HAC Tournament and averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds in four state tournament games, recording double-doubles each time.

“He’s in the gym all the time,” Petcavage said. “The moves he makes, they look so smooth and solid, but he will work on those for hours at a time and it’s the same thing with his shot. He works on those things over and over again.”

“It’s very fun playing with him. He puts a smile on our faces,” freshman guard Kevin Anderson said that year. “I think he has always been that since he was little. Ever since I started playing with him he’s been a great player.”

Johnson remains that way today. He was an easy first team all-state selection following that memorable 2014 season, becoming the first to achieve that honor in program history. Johnson scored 1,610 career points while topping 1,000 rebounds and 400 assists. It was a storybook high school career, but has become just one fantastic chapter in Johnson’s basketball life story.

“He just has that will that he’s not going to lose,” Petcavage said. “He can hurt you so many different ways. He’s phenomenal. I don’t know how else to describe him.”

Whether Johnson is playing or not, his community agrees.

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