RED LION — It was everything you could've hoped for out of the two highest-scoring teams in the York-Adams League.
The Northeastern and York Catholic boys' basketball teams put on a show for every single fan that packed the Red Lion High School gym for the second semifinal of the Y-A League playoffs on Wednesday night. It was high tempo, there were big shots and rarely did one team go on a run without the other team immediately answering.
The Bobcats entered the tournament as the favorite — the Division I champions who had navigated a loaded big-school division, while the Fighting Irish were the overlooked squad who received little respect throughout the league after rolling over everyone in Division III. In the end, not much separated the two teams. Northeastern outlasted York Catholic, 69-66, to book a spot in Friday night's league championship game against Central York at 7 p.m. at York College. It's the Bobcats' first title appearance since 2004.
"I thought it was more of a street fight than a game that flowed," Bobcats' head coach Jon Eyster said. "But, hey, it was two pretty good teams that got into a fight."
The largest advantage any team held at any point was an eight-point cushion for Northeastern (22-2) midway through the first quarter. After that, the two sides went back and forth over the final three quarters, with York Catholic actually getting a chance at the end to potentially tie it and force overtime.
With 3.7 seconds remaining and trailing by three, the Fighting Irish (21-2) looked to have forced a turnover along the sideline, but the call was ruled a jump ball, giving the ball back to the Bobcats. With less than two seconds to play, York Catholic deflected the in-bounds pass and senior Andrew Forjan chucked up a three-quarter court shot that came up short, allowing Northeastern to survive.
"It's disappointing, it really is," Fighting Irish head coach Blaine Claiborne said. "We made goals at the beginning of the season, and winning the county was definitely one of the goals. ... We didn't do it, so it's disappointing, yeah. We felt like we were good enough to win."
Back and forth: After York Catholic scored the game's opening bucket, the Bobcats went on to score the next eight points, making it look like they were just going to dominate the smaller school. Northeastern continued to expand its lead to the game-high eight-point advantage in the first, but finally the Fighting Irish got their bearings and turned it into a battle.
By the end of the first quarter, the Bobcats held just a one-point lead, and then by halftime, it was back to square one, with the game deadlocked at 28-28. York Catholic grabbed a two-point lead early in the third quarter for its first lead since the 2-0 start, but, as in the opening quarter, Northeastern instantly responded with another 8-0 run to go back up by six. After that, the game remained a two-possession contest through the end of the quarter, with the Bobcats carrying a 48-44 advantage into the final eight minutes.
But, if you thought the Fighting Irish were going to roll over, you were wrong. They blitzed Northeastern to open the fourth quarter, scoring six consecutive points to jump back on top. The two sides alternated leads over the next couple minutes, but then, with 4:25 to play, Bobcats' junior guard Fred Mulbah forced a turnover at mid-court and went in and flushed home a monstrous dunk that put Northeastern ahead by two and in the lead for good.
All season long, the Bobcats have had a knack for closing out teams and turning final scores into something more one-sided than how the game was actually played out. That looked to be the case again in this one, with Northeastern knocking home a few clutch free throws to go up by seven inside the final 40 seconds. But, back-to-back 3-pointers by York Catholic that bookended a couple Bobcat free throws all of a sudden had the game within three again going into the final seconds, only for time to run out on the Fighting Irish.
"We've been hearing a lot about Division I teams and we felt like we could definitely compete with these guys," Forjan said. "We knew from the beginning that we expected to be here and could win this game. ... We played really well tonight. Like that is good going forward for us."
Scoring: Northeastern got another balanced scoring effort, with four players reaching double figures. Brandon Coleman led the team with 17 points, followed by Austin Green's 15, Antonio Rizzuto's 14 and Mulbah's 13.
York Catholic was led by D'Andre Davis' game-high 23 points and Melik Martin was a force inside all night, posting a double-double, while finishing with 20 points.
With the win, the Bobcats set up a rubber match against the Panthers on Friday night. Central York was the team that upset Northeastern on the road earlier in the year to put an end to the Bobcats' 17-0 start. But, in order to finish out the league portion of the season with a league championship, Eyster knows his team will need to improve.
"We did a lot of things wrong and we're able to sneak out of here," Eyster said. "You don't complain about a win, but we can play a lot better. We're going to have to."
Pre-sale tickets: The Northeastern Athletic Department will hold an advance ticket sale for Friday's game. Tickets will be sold Thursday from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. and Friday from noon until 3 p.m. at the Northeastern ninth-grade office (198 N. Hartman St., Manchester). Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for students.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com