Darin Gordon started attacking the basket too early.
And when he passed out of a shot, it didn't go to standout junior Eli Brooks. Instead, it wound up in the hands of senior Grant Wierman. And even when he drove to the basket, he bobbled the ball.
Everything about Spring Grove's final possession against Northeastern on Thursday night at Red Lion High School didn't go as planned — except the final result.
After Wierman lost control, he regained it and put the ball up and into the basket, putting the Rockets on top of the Bobcats 59-57 with just three seconds to play. After Northeastern fumbled the ball out of bounds on its last-ditch attempt to tie or win the game, Spring Grove ran out the clock, capturing the semifinal victory and advancing into Saturday night's York-Adams League boys' basketball championship game.
“They were supposed to run our play at like five or six seconds and they went a little early,” Rockets' head coach James Brooks said. “But Grant had that cut and they weren't playing that close to him and when they closed out badly, he got to the paint.”
Whether or not the play was originally drawn up for him, Wierman had a different thought in the back of his mind that kept him mentally prepared, just in case.
“I was kind of thinking about the Red Lion game last year and how the play wasn't designed for me,” he said. “But, I was open and was just ready for the opportunity.”
Wierman's heroics helped Spring Grove (21-2) forget about the fact that it twice blew 10-point leads against the Bobcats in the second half. The Rockets handed Northeastern (21-2) its second loss of the season.
But, even with the two blown second-half leads, the Rockets never trailed. They implemented a slower, more methodical game plan to hold Northeastern's run-and-gun offense at bay, jumping out to a 7-0 lead and leading for most of the night. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Bobcats finally clawed all the way back to tie the game at 51-51, thanks to a 9-2 run and strong play from their two sophomores.
With Donovian Maxfield struggling to find the range from deep in the second half and leading scorer Kobi Nwandu held in check by Brooks, Northeastern got an unexpected contribution from a pair of 10th graders, Antonio Rizzuto and Fred Mulbah.
The Bobcats scored 24 points in the final quarter, 17 of which came from the two sophomores. Mulbah scored all of his team-high 16 points in the second half, with nine of those in the fourth quarter. Rizzuto, meanwhile, finished the night with 12 points, eight of which came in the final quarter.
“Those guys have been big for us all year,” Northeastern head coach Jon Eyster said. “They're sophomores, but they've played varsity all year. These kids now, they play so much basketball. Fred is hard to guard and, Antonio, once he got into the flow of things, he started to make some shots.”
Yet, it was tough to rely solely on the play of the two sophomores without getting much help from any of the Bobcats' other top scorers. Nwandu, who was blanketed all night by Brooks, was held to just three points, all coming on free throws. Maxfield, despite scoring 15 points, only had three in the second half, with all of his points coming from downtown.
“That's going to be the big thing and the next step of college basketball,” Eli Brooks said about his defensive effort. “You're going to have to be able to guard the best player on the court because they're all like that at the next level.”
On the other side, no matter how much Northeastern tried, it couldn't slow down the duo of Brooks and Gordon. Brooks finished with a game-high 28 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, six of which came off of transition dunks.
“Eli with 28, how many of those were in transition? How many dunks did he have tonight,” Eyster said. “Our poor transition allowed him to score. We didn't want him to score in transition and he did. His scores in the half court, you can live with. If he's guarded, you live with those, but it's his scores in transition, where no one was guarding him, that killed us.”
Meanwhile, Gordon added 10 points, despite an off shooting night. The Rockets' second-leading scorer on the night was Wierman, who finished with 12 points, shooting 6 of 14 from the floor, but hitting his final four shots of the game.
Spring Grove will face Central York in Saturday's championship game at York College. The Panthers are the only team to beat the Rockets this year, doing so on two separate occasions, both coming by scores of 53-50.
The championship game is set to tip at 7:30 p.m. at the Grumbacher Center.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org