When nearly every seat is filled an hour before tip-off at one of the district's biggest gyms one understands how much Williamsport vs. Loyalsock means.
The annual area grudge match produced one of the biggest crowds in the history of the series Saturday night and both teams gave them quite a show. Like two heavyweights going at it, Williamsport kept landing big punches and Loyalsock kept fighting back. Williamsport finally landed the knockout blow late as Jahad Thomas played a sensational game and won, 66-54.
Thomas played through a knee injury and Isaiah Washington scored a courageous 19 points despite battling the flu so it was a quality and hard-fought Williamsport win. The area basketball community, though, was really the big winner.
Simply put, it does not get much better than watching the district's two most tradition-laden programs go at it in front of a huge crowd.
"Loyalsock came in and they competed and I really respect that," said Thomas, after scoring 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. "These are the types of games I like to play especially because Loyalsock came out and competed so hard. The scores changed, they came back, we came back but we knew how to just keep fighting."
Williamsport and Loyalsock are a combined 19-4 and played like the defending district champions they are. Loyalsock overcame a 12-point second-quarter deficit and nearly erased a 15-point third-quarter deficit and Williamsport answered each time. It was a fun, back and forth game and every basket, every play mattered. One could feel the drama in the air and that is what makes this rivalry such a great one.
"These are the big games everyone in their backyard plays, buzzer-beaters and stuff like that," said Loyalsock guard Mike Pastore after scoring 16 points. "We just kept our composure and didn't give up. We kept playing until the very end."
Like the games themselves too, this series keeps going back and forth. After Loyalsock won the previous two, Williamsport has won the last two games. The next contest is scheduled for next January again.
Anyone excited yet? This reporter is.
"It's always a good game to play," Williamsport coach Allen Taylor said. "It's a great game for the community, a packed house, a playoff environment. a little trash talking with the players before the game and it's just bragging rights for the community. It's a lot of fun for everyone."
KNIGHT RIDERS: Beating former nemesis and defending District 4 Class A champion Sullivan County for the first time in three seasons last Tuesday showed how good St. John Neumann is.
The way it followed up that breakthrough win, though, was equally impressive. When Neumann downed Bloomsburg, another defending league champion, 62-54 it proved it as tough and mature as it is talented. And moving forward, that could be quite a recipe as the Knights pursue their first district title since 2000.
"None of this stuff is getting to our head," point guard Richard Allen said. "That's what I like about us. We talk about it after the game. We get real serious."
Neumann is 10-0 for the first time this century. The Knights are excited and having fun but they are not getting caught up in their success. They understand the finish is more important than the start, especially since the HAC-III and District 4 are loaded this year.
Neumann sent a message last Tuesday when it went to Laporte and beat previously undefeated Sullivan County, 67-56. The Knights handed Sullivan its first home loss in two years and avenged last year's district final loss. A letdown was a definite possibility three nights later against Bloomsburg but it did not happen. The Knights built a 14-point second-quarter lead and played great in the fourth after the Panthers had pulled within two.
This was the proof that Neumann has not grown satisfied. This was the game that showed Neumann has the mindset to be a major playoff factor once again.
"These guys are gamers and they pick up things pretty quick," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "I can tell they're more focused in games like this and it was a really good win."
Petcavage told his players before the Sullivan game they were embarking on a season-defining four-game stretch. The Knights were 8-0 at the time but games against three of the four 2012 tri-HAC-III champions and state qualifier Muncy loomed next. Neumann has responded to the challenge with vigor and now stands alone in first in the HAC-III, a game ahead of Sullivan and Muncy.
The difficult stretch continues Tuesday and Friday as Neumann hosts South Williamsport and goes to Muncy. But these are the games Neumann likes.
"We're going to be pumped for that," guard Jordan Cole said. "We're excited. We can't wait."
The Knights have won at Lourdes (9-3) and at Sullivan (10-1). They have beaten a Class AA district title contender too. The blowouts are nice, but Neumann prefers the tough games. They embrace the challenges.
The bigger the games are the happier Neumann is. And if the Knights stay as focused as they have so far, they could be plenty in many more big games this season.
TRUE WARRIOR: I was sad to learn about the passing of Montoursville graduate Justin Hilton last week. Only 28, Hilton was a standout baseball and basketball player at Montoursville and graduated in 2002 before excelling on the baseball field at Mansfield University.
Hilton bravely beat cancer a few years ago and fought valiantly when it recurred a short while ago. As good as Hilton was on the field and the court he was better off it. He always was respectful, was an outstanding teammate and terrific friend to many. To look at him as just an athlete would be to miss the big picture and the essence of who he was.
Hilton influenced countless lives in a positive manner and that is his legacy. That will live on forever.
PUTBACKS: Who says foul shooting is a lost art? Canton hit 20 of 20 free throws in Friday's 66-54 win over Troy and is just three victories from clinching its first playoff berth this century ... Hughesville has shown a lot of toughness since dropping to 4-4. The Spartans won their third straight Friday, rallying in the fourth quarter and beating Mount Carmel, 51-44 in overtime. It was the second time Hughesville rallied in overtime during the winning streak. Tristan Jeffreys had 25 points and 20 rebounds in two wins last week, including 13 in the Mount Carmel game... Dallas Dziuba grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds Friday as Mansfield beat Williamson, 46-37.
Dr. Masse's boys area top five
1. Williamsport (11-2): When Thomas and Chris Kinley are playing well inside, the Millionaires are especially tough to stop. Kinley had 16 points and 11 rebounds and helped Williamsport start strong. He and Thomas have good post moves, are strong and run the floor well. And if Greg Ousley continues to bounce back from a knee injury, the Millionaires could be at their best when it matters most late in the season.
2. Loyalsock (8-2): The Lancers really are in a great situation when they play Williamsport. Even when they lose, they benefit from playing an outstanding Class AAAA team. Facing a team with the ability Williamsport has can only help the Lancers as they pursue another district title. That could be especially crucial with big games against Lewisburg and Hughesville this week.
"I know we lost but this game is a win-win for us," Pastore said. "Playing against good competition like this is always a plus. Now we're playing Lewisburg with our confidence up even though we lost."
3. Lewisburg (10-0): The Green Dragons are off to one of the best starts in program history and face last year's two District 4 Class AA finalists in a three-day stretch this week. Guard Travis Conrad is one of the district's best and scored a career-high 28 points in a 55-46 win over Central Columbia. The senior has topped 20 points four times, runs the floor well, plays good defense and outscored Warrior Run by himself in the first half of Friday's win.
4. St. John Neumann (10-0): Allen and Cole are shining in Neumann's backcourt, playing well in all facets. Allen ignited Neumann's defense in both wins while Cole had 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds. He missed a triple-double against Sullivan by just one rebound and one point. After going 2-20 two seasons ago, Neumann is 28-9 since, quite an impressive turnaround.
5. Wellsboro (13-1): I honestly wonder if Wellsboro is going to get bored during league play. The Green Hornets decimated primary challenger Mansfield, 71-35 on the road and are steamrolling all league opponents in the path, something that likely will continue barring injury. Sophomore Mike Pietropola might be the area's top reserve, averaging nearly 11 points per game. The versatile sharp-shooter matched a career-high with 20 points in Friday's 74-32 win over Cowanesque Valley.
Player of the week
Alize Johnson, St. John Neumann: The junior has made steady progress in his three years as a starter and is quickly becoming one of the district's premier players. Johnson scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds in Neumann's two big wins. The 6-foot-5 center scored a career-high 30 points against Sullivan, grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds against Bloomsburg and drained six 3-pointers in the Sullivan victory.
Game of the week
Lewisburg at Loyalsock: Tuesday's showdown features the HAC-II's only undefeated teams and the last two conference champions. Loyalsock edged Lewisburg in the district quarterfinals last year and both teams are serious district title contenders again. One gets the feeling this could be the first of three games between these rivals this season.