It's fair to say that, in recent seasons, the Northeastern boys' basketball team has had the talent to be York-Adams League champions.
This year is the third consecutive year in which the Bobcats have won at least 20 games. Yet, in those past seasons, Northeastern always fell short of expectations and bowed out of the league tournament — and other stages of the postseason — early, never having any sort of hardware to show for its strong campaigns.
On Friday night, in front of a sold out Grumbacher Center at York College, the Bobcats put an end to all of those shortcomings, defeating Central York, 62-51, to capture the program's first ever league championship.
"It's pretty cool," Northeastern head coach Jon Eyster said. "The best team doesn't always win in a tournament like this. I don't know who the best team was. Some of you (the media) said it was us back in October. ...It makes it tough. You put expectations on guys and they rose to the occasion."
Hot start for Central: While the final score would indicate otherwise, earning that elusive first league title didn't come without hardships. For the entire first quarter, the Bobcats (23-2) looked out of sorts. Playing in its first league title game since 2003, part of it was because the initial adrenaline rush of the moment wore the team down, Eyster said. But, it was also in part due to the Panthers (17-8) controlling the tempo.
Knowing that Northeastern thrives off of its athleticism and getting out in the open court, Central slowed down the game, forcing the Bobcats into several contested shots, all while the Panthers started off red-hot from the floor. In the opening quarter, Central shot 7-13 from the field and built an 18-11 cushion through the opening eight minutes.
As soon as the second quarter began, however, Northeastern began to control the game and it carried into the second half. The much less athletic Panthers could never recover.
"In the second quarter, we allowed Northeastern to dictate what we did on the offensive end and I really think that was the difference," Central head coach Kevin Schieler said. "Being three possession behind going into the second half, there's no way we could come back from that. One-possession, two-possession games, they can be a fight. But, once we get down three or four possessions, they're way too talented and way too quick for us to keep up with them.
Big run fuels Bobcats: The turning point came in the second quarter when the Bobcats grabbed a hold of the contest through a 16-1 run. They erased a 21-11 deficit and turned it into a 27-22 lead, a lead they never relinquished. To make matters worse, the Panthers looked like they were only going to head into the halftime break down by three, but a putback at the horn by freshman Austin Richards made it a 31-26 Northeastern lead with one half to go.
Coming out of the break, the Bobcats slowly extended their lead, never going on any substantial scoring runs, like in the second quarter, but by just outscoring Central by a couple points every few minutes. By the end of the three, it was 43-35.
In the fourth quarter, Northeastern earned its largest lead of the night at 14 points, going in front 53-39. The Panthers kept trying to make one final push, but never got closer than nine points in the frame.
Rizzuto shows off defensive game: Known for their offense, the Bobcats relied on their defense on Friday night to gain momentum. Nobody was bigger in that regard than junior Antonio Rizzuto.
Northeastern's leading scorer, Rizzuto only had five points through the first three quarters. However, he didn't let if dictate his defense and he came up with timely plays at that end of the floor to key the Bobcats' offense. None were bigger than his monster block on Garrett Markey in transition. Then, just a few seconds later, he came up with a steal that led to Fred Mulbah getting out in the the open floor and finishing a spinning layup.
"You gotta look at the big picture and that was to win," Rizzuto said. "I just had to do other things. My shot wasn't falling, so I needed to get rebounds for my team, make outlet passes and all kinds of different stuff. Yeah, I only scored 11 points, but it's all right."
Mulbah led the charge for Northeastern with 17 points, but senior Brandon Coleman really carried the team in the opening half when it desperately needed to weather Central's early surge. Coleman finished the night with 14 points, while Rizzuto finished with 11 and freshman Nate Wilson had 10, eight of which came in the first half.
"We always just tell each other, no matter who it is, just play our game and if they have an advantage, or can score the basket, then just do it," Coleman said. "So, we were struggling a little bit, so they just told me to do what I had to do and I just attacked the rim."
Courtney Batts led the Panthers with 16 points, while the only other player to reach double figures in the game was Markey, who finished with 10. This was the fourth consecutive championship game appearance for Central, losing the last three.
Next up for both teams is the District 3 tournament. The Bobcats enter the 5-A playoffs as the top seed, while the Panthers are the No. 9 seed in 6-A. Northeastern will get things started on Monday night against No. 16 Exeter Township, while Central will have an extra day to prepare for No. 8 Cedar Crest.
NORTHEASTERN 62, CENTRAL YORK 51
Northeastern: Coleman 6 1-2 14, Greene 3 2-2 8, Rizzuto 5 0-0 11, Mulbah 7 3-4 17, Wilson 4 0-0 10, Richards 1 0-0 2, Eyster 0 0-0 0.
3-pointers: Wilson (2), Coleman, Rizzuto.
Totals: 26 6-8 62
Central York: Batts 6 2-3 16, Markey 3 3-4 10, Pribula 0 0-0 0, Luckenbaugh 2 0-0 4, O'Neill2 1-2 5, Ray 1 0-0 3, Sobestanovich 2 2-3 6, Czulada 3 1-1 7.
3-pointers: Batts (2), Markey, Ray.
Totals: 15 9-13 51
Central York_18_8_9_16 — 51
Northeastern_11_20_12_19 — 62