Neumann-Goretti opens PCL play with win at buzzer against La Salle

SPRINGFIELD>> The Philadelphia Catholic League is back and while things may look very different, the usual high level of play hasn’t gone anywhere.

The first night of the 2021 season brought an instant thriller as defending champion Neumann-Goretti found itself in a fight to the finish with host La Salle. Both sides got some big-time performances and plenty of clutch plays as the outcome came down to the final possession.

A pirouetting layup by Saints freshman Rob Wright III at the buzzer delivered the defending champs a 67-65 victory in a terrific game to start the PCL season.

“It was just a phenomenal feeling to get out there with your brothers when it was expected there wasn’t going to be a season,” Neumann-Goretti senior Hysier Miller said. “For us getting this opportunity tonight when we saw all those other games get cancelled, I was just happy to be out there and of course to get a win in a tough game.”

Miller, a Temple recruit and returning starter from last year’s PCL champion, led the Saints with 23 points and 12 rebounds and rose his game in the second half. Masud Stewart added 14 for Neumann-Goretti, including a go-ahead 3-pointer that kicked off the frantic finish while Wright added nine in his varsity debut.

Top scoring honors went to the host side however. La Salle sophomore Horace Simmons erupted in the first half, scoring 22 of his game-best 26 points in the opening 16 minutes of the contest that included five of his six 3-point makes and a high-flying dunk.

Simmons was upset with the outcome, but not his team’s effort and said it was a game to learn from.

“I thought we played a great game, we shouldn’t hang our heads,” Simmons, a 6-foot-5 wing, said. “We played a great team and kept it a close game so I feel like if we play this way every night, we can beat anybody.”

The first half was a tale of runs, with the Saints using a steal-fueled 9-0 spell to take a 20-13 lead in the first quarter before the Explorers seized momentum behind Simmons in the second. Simmons was a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor in the quarter, sparking a 22-4 deluge that flipped a 21-17 deficit into a 39-25 lead with 1:51 left in the half.

A 54-second span in that run saw Simmons hit a contested three, turn an outlet pass from Sam Brown into a dunk and Charles Ireland drill a 3-pointer. Explorers coach Mike McKee felt Simmons’ big half was a result of the work Simmons has put in since last season ended.

“He, along with all our guys, have worked really hard. He’s especially worked to improve his shooting and it certainly showed,” McKee said. “Neumann-Goretti made a nice adjustment, they started running at him so he couldn’t get that shot. He still has to learn to have that sense of when he’s open and when we can help other guys get open but I’m happy to see how much he’s improved.”

Simmons popped another 3-pointer off a catch-and-shoot inbound for a 44-36 lead at the 6:36 mark of the third quarter but he would be held to just one more point the rest of the way. The La Salle sophomore echoed his coach, saying he could have added a pump fakes or made an extra pass once defenders started closing out on him and will look to do so next time out.

Neumann-Goretti regained some standing with a 7-0 run over the final 1:40 that included a three by Miller and a layup for Wright with the Saints carrying the momentum over to the second half. Miller said it was a key stretch in the game, because it not only kept the visitors from trailing by double-digits at the break but let them regroup and adjust.

“We had to make the run, we had to do something to get the game going our way,” Miller said. “We had to get more comfortable. We hadn’t played in a high school game in a while, so we had to believe in each other. If I didn’t have teammates out there hitting shots or setting screens, I wouldn’t be able to do what I want to do out there.”

Miller scored eight points in the third quarter, including a layup that tied the score 54-54 to complete the Saints’ comeback efforts. Even with Neumann-Goretti trying to limit Simmons, the Explorers had other guys ready to step in like Charles Ireland, who hit two 3-pointers in the third as part of a 15-point effort.

Brown, who led La Salle with eight rebounds and five assists, gave his team some key buckets in the fourth where he tallied five of his 15 points and supplied the dish on Jackson Conroy’s trey that put the Explorers ahead 63-61.

“I’m proud of how hard our guys have worked and I’m proud of their toughness,” McKee said. “Neumann won the game, our guys didn’t lose the game. They made the play down stretch, give them all the credit and the key is can we learn from that?”

The teams traded hoops until Shawn Battle knotted the score 65-65 with 1:35 to play. Miller came up with a key defensive play, blocking a jump shot and collecting the rebound to give Neumann-Goretti a look at a last shot.

La Salle had a foul to give and took it with 6.3 left, setting up the final sequence. While the Saints easily could have gone to their Division I lead guard, Miller said he was just as confident when the play was set up for Wright.

“I didn’t even question it,” Miller said. “Rob has been excellent since his first day at Neumann, everybody trusts him. Even though he’s a freshman, I feel like he’s still one of the stronger guards in the entire area.”

With the PCL set up so only the top two teams in the standings play for the championship, it will be imperative that squads have a short memory this winter. Neumann-Goretti’s next scheduled game is Monday at Archbishop Wood while La Salle will face Wood at home on Feb. 4.

“As long as we play together, I don’t think we have many weaknesses,” Simmons said. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a while. It was debatable if we’d even have a season, so I was happy to be out there and liked how we kept the energy up the whole game.”

NEUMANN-GORETTI 20 12 22 13 – 67
LA SALLE 15 24 15 11 – 65
Neumann-Goretti: Hysier Miller 8 5-8 23, Aamir Hurst 1 0-0 2, Masud Stewart 4 4-4 14, Chris Evan 1 0-0 3, Zaakir Williamson 4 3-5 11, Shawn Battle 2 0-0 5, Rob Wright III 4 1-2 9. Totals: 24 13-19 67.
La Salle: Horace Simmons 9 2-4 26, Sam Brown 6 3-6 15, Nix Varano 1 0-0 2, Charles Ireland 6 0-0 15, Caleb Bryant 1 0-0 2, Jackson Conroy 1 2-2 5. Totals: 24 7-12 65.
3-pointers: NG – Miller 2, Stewart 2, Battle, Evans, L – Simmons 6, Ireland 3, Conroy.

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