Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Neumann-Goretti forward John Davis had a big fourth quarter, helping his team overcome a tough road atmosphere and a big night from B.J. Johnson in a 70-64 win over Lower Merion in both teams’ season openers on Friday night.
Saints coach Carl Arrigale knew his team would face a tough challenge on the road to start the season, and it was certainly a battle for the three-time defending state champions.
Neumann-Goretti led at the end of each quarter, but it was 15-13 after the first eight minutes of play and 31-30 at intermission after a first half in which neither team led by more than a bucket. That lead was extended to 49-43 after three quarters, but it wasn’t until the final minute of play that the Saints’ lead was finally safe.
Davis, a 6-foot-6 forward headed to Towson next year, had a tough time early on against Aces senior center Yohanny Dalembert, but gained momentum as the game went on. Davis scored 15 of his 20 points and had seven of his 10 rebounds after a stern halftime chat from his coach.
“(Arrigale) just told me I wasn’t playing as myself,” Davis said, “and I think I was a little too excited in the beginning of the game. This is a big first game, so I just had to come out calm, make shots and do what my team needed me to do.”
“I told him ‘you’re John Davis for a reason, because you play like John Davis. I don’t know who you were trying to play like in the first half and what the look on your face was. Punch the ticket and go to work’ and he played with a lot more aggression, he played a lot better in the second half. He was Johnny Davis in the second half.”
Dalembert–the younger brother of the former Sixers’ center– had seven points, 11 rebounds and two blocks but got into foul trouble after halftime, fouling out with 2:25 remaining and Neumann-Goretti leading 65-57.
(More on Yohanny: For Tyler Sablich’s sidebar on the LM senior, click here)
Davis had every reason to be excited, playing in front of a boisterous crowd of 1500 that was definitely favoring Lower Merion although Neumann-Goretti certainly had a strong contingent. In addition, he got to play against Johnson, an AAU teammate on a loaded Team Final squad that also included Robert Morris-bound guard Britton Lee and Chester’s Rondae Jefferson, a consensus five-star recruit headed to Arizona in the fall.
“Him and B.J. have been friends for a long time, growing up and stuff like that, he was coming in here and I know he wanted to play well,” Arrigale said.
“Playing with B.J. all summer for the last couple summers, AAU, I pretty much know his game, know what he can do,” Davis said. “I was pretty much comfortable because I knew what he can do…I know he can shoot the ball, handle the ball, so I know everything he does.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-7 wing headed to Syracuse next year, had 28 points for the Aces to lead all scorers; he was helped by nine points from junior guard JaQuan Johnson and eight from junior forward Raheem Hall.
“We knew (Johnson) was gonna get his–it was his gym, we’re in their backyard,” Neumann-Goretti guard Ja’Quan Newton said. “All we were worried about was the win.”
Newton, the Saints’ leading scorer last year at nearly 16 points per game, lead his squad with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting, adding in eight rebounds and two steals. Possibly the best player in the 2014 class in the area, he had Villanova coach Jay Wright as well as a few other D-I assistants in the gym to see the game.
Sophomore point guard LaMarr Kimble added 11 points, nine rebounds and three assists in his first start for Neumann-Goretti. Kimble went off after taking a hard fall with five minutes to play in the game, but returned for the final two minutes and should be fine.
“I was a little worried when he got hurt, because he was doing a nice job,” Arrigale said. “He was poised, super poised as a sophomore, and he gives Ja’Quan (Newton) that extra guy to help get into the creases in the press.”
The backcourt of Newton and Kimble, along with senior Hanif Sutton and junior Troy Harper, didn’t have too much trouble against Lower Merion’s full-court press. What Neumann-Goretti did struggle with was the Aces’ zone, which was quite different from the man-to-man they face daily in practice.
“First game of the year and you know team’s gonna play zone most of the game and you’re a man-to-man team that practices against man-to-man a lot, it was a big challenge for our guys,” Arrigale said. “I wish we could have played a little better, but I’m not gonna apologize for winning, I’m glad to win the game.”
“We wanted to spread them out offensively, play a lot of zone, do a good job with the rebounding and they followed some of those elements, the zone defense in particular,” LM coach Gregg Downer said. “I don’t think (Neumann-Goretti) shot the ball very well, but the zone was effective in spots.”
Neumann-Goretti has a few days off before their next game, another road matchup at Reading High School next Friday. Lower Merion is in action on Tuesday when they host Haverford High School for a 7:30 p.m. game.