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Fantastic Neumann comeback falls just short in thrilling state quarterfinal

POTTSVILLE–St. John Neumann produced excitement every time it played this season.

Friday at Pottsville Nativity, Neumann almost generated its greatest performance yet. The Knights nearly made what felt impossible become reality.

And when Davion Hill made a steal a midcourt and launched a long 3-pointer two seconds later, it looked as if Neumann might cap one of the greatest comebacks in recent area history. The shot was just long, however, and Nativity escaped with a dramatic 72-70 Class A state quarterfinal victory which had both fan sections giving well-deserved, loud ovations afterward.

Neumann nearly erased a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit which was still 10 points at the two-minute mark and nine with 81 seconds remaining. The Knights had three chances in the final 27.8 seconds to go ahead, tie or win despite the long odds. Any loss hurts bad at this time of year and Neumann (17-4) surely will look back and wonder about things it could have done different.

One thing the Knights will never have to question is their effort. The two-time defending District 4 champions left their collective heart on the Nativity court and do not need a state title banner to validate themselves as champions.

“We definitely left everything on the court,” Neumann guard Davion Hill said following a superb 34-point, 13-rebound performance. “It took us a while to get into our groove and start finding their weak spots. We waited pretty long to start attacking, but we definitely left it out there and when we needed big shots, we hit them. It just wasn’t enough in the end.”

“It was a great year. We have nothing to hang our heads about,” Neumann coach Jamie Spencer said. “We had some opportunities. You would love to win the game and it’s tough, but they showed their character.”

A few weeks after capturing its first Schuylkill League championship, Nativity (22-4) reached its first state Final 4. The Hilltoppers reached the Elite 8 last year but the COVID-19 lockdown denied it a shot at the state semifinals. Given a second chance, they cashed in and never trailed while continuing the best season in program history.

The 6-foot-6 inside tandem of Marquis Ratcliff and Kegan Hertz was as good as advertised and both led the way. Ratcliff scored 25 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked 4 shots despite missing most of the second quarter with two fouls. Hertz produced 24 points and 11 rebounds while Jacob Hoffman added 11 points. Neumann made Nativity sweat it out, but the Hilltoppers earned a semifinal date Monday against District 3 champion LaAcademia Charter, a first-year charter school.

“We have shirts that say, ‘Do what we do,'” Nativity coach Mike Walborn said. “If we do what we do and do it well we’ll put ourselves in position to win.”

Nativity did a lot well Friday and its 2-3 zone defense gave Neumann fits throughout most of the first three quarters. The Hilltoppers built a 34-23 halftime lead and, despite Neumann scoring 19 third-quarter points, extended the lead to 13 entering the fourth.

Neumann made just 10 of 33 first-half shots, entered the fourth quarter shooting 3 of 12 at the line and was having problems containing Nativity’s inside duo no matter how hard it tried. There was little indication the fourth quarter might be much different.

But Neumann has never run from a challenge and it embraced this one with fury. Davion and brother David Hill were virtually unstoppable in the fourth quarter, combining for all 28 Neumann points. Davion (34 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals) scored 16 and David (17 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) 12, with them combining to make 10 of their last 13 shots. Hanief Clay (9 assists, 6 steals, 6 rebounds) made three steals during that time and his dish to David, along with a David putback had Neumann within 61-55 at the 3-minute mark.

“I told the guys to just keep fighting. They just never quit because they know we can put up 15 points in the blink of an eye,” Spencer said. “We played some defense, we shared the ball, we got after it and we had some opportunities.”

Nativity scored the next four points, going up 10. A David Hill 3-pointer cut it to five, but when Ratcliff made four straight free throws and gave Nativity a 69-60 lead with 1 minute, 21 seconds remaining, the outcome seemed decided barring a minor miracle.

It nearly happened.

Davion Hill channeled his inner-Reggie Miller, hitting a 3-pointer, making a steal and then draining another trey as Neumann quickly made it 69-66. Ratcliff found Keegan Brennan in transition seconds later, but David Hill responded and drained a 3-pointer in the corner while well defended. Suddenly it was 71-69 with 27.8 seconds left and Nativity was then hit with a technical foul.

Davion Hill hit a free throw out of a timeout and made it 71-70. Neumann had a chance to take the lead but turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. A free throw put Nativity up 72-70 and Neumann again looked for the tie or lead, but Davion Hill was called for a questionable offensive foul 30 feet from the basket with 10 seconds left.

Nativity skillfully moved the basketball as Neumann tried fouling and looked like it might run out the clock. Instead, Clay jumped high and swatted away a pass at midcourt. Davion Hill picked the ball up, glanced at the clock, dribbled a few more times and launched a beyond NBA-range 3-pointer at the buzzer. The shot was on target, but just a bit too hard as it careened off the backboard as time expired.

“I felt like it was going in,” Davion said. “I banked a few so when it went up, I thought I was going to make it,but it just came off a little too hard and I couldn’t get it to go.”

“Everything we wanted to do we did to them,” Walborn said. “The last 5-6 minutes they hit some tough shots so what are you going to do? It’s a great win and it’s very satisfying. I’m very happy for the kids.”

Neumann experienced heartbreak for a second straight season in states a year after losing in the second round to Southern Fulton at the buzzer. Senior forward Keon Burkholder will not be back next year to try and help Neumann experience state tournament glory, but he laid the foundation for what could be a big 2022 season moments after the game ended.

Burkholder delivered a passionate post game speech, and its impact could be felt throughout next season. When times get tough, Neumann may hear Burkholder’s words and get a boost.

“It means a lot for him to say that and him letting us younger guys know we have to step it up,” Davion Hill said. “He was saying don’t wait until your senior year to be a leader and to start going now and helps us a lot.”

“Keon was incredible. He told the guys he loved them,” Spencer said. “He told the guys he might not have been the best teammate, but he cared for them and there wasn’t a dry eye in that locker room.”

At halftime, Neumann was in that locker room trying to find a way to get back into the game. The Knights struggled against the zone and often settled for perimeter shots throughout the first half, going 1 for 10 from 3-point range. It left the door open with its own free throw struggles, but any time Neumann seemed to get something going, Nativity responded, and a last-minute surge had it up, 34-23 at halftime.

Davion Hill scored 10 third-quarter points and Neumann made its first four third-quarter shots. Each time Nativity answered and despite that hot start, the Knights could not cut into Nativity’s lead. It was 55-42 after three but what looked like the end became a furious comeback and Neumann nearly completed it in storybook fashion.

Nativity won this thrilling state quarterfinal, but Neumann was never defeated.

“That definitely says a lot about us. We definitely tried to put it all out there,” Davion Hill said. “To be down that many points to a team this good shows how we could have been in it the whole game, but just unfortunately we couldn’t get in the groove earlier. I think we just ran out of time.”

NEUMANN (70)

David Hill 7 1-2 17, Davion Hill 13 6-10 34, Hanief Clay 2 0-5 5, Naseer Dymeck 2 1-2 6, Keon Burkholder 1 0-0 2, JerVal Weeks-Shuler 1 0-0 2, Naz Smith 2 0-0 4. Totals 28 8-19 70.

NATIVITY (72)

Kegan Hertz 10 3-6 24, Marquis Ratcliff 9 7-12 25, Cody Miller 0 0-0 0, Jacob Hoffman 5 0-0 11, Julius Walborn 1 1-2 3, Keegan Brennan 2 2-2 7, Ben Sipes 0 2-4 2. Totals 27 15-25.

Neumann 14 9 19 28–70

Nativity 19 15 21 17–72

3-pointers: Neumann 6 (David Hill 2, Davion Hill 2, Clay, Dymeck); Nativity 3 (Hertz, Hoffman, Brennan).

Records: Nativity 22-4. Neumann 17-4.

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