HERSHEY — Brandon Coleman was forced to the bench with foul trouble less than five minutes into the game.
Starting guard Antonio Rizzuto wasn't far behind. Then, Rizzuto's backcourt companion, Fred Mulbah, joined them on the bench midway through the second quarter after picking up a technical foul.
It wasn't the ideal situation for the Northeastern boys' basketball team, playing in the team's biggest game all season, to have three of its starting five on the bench in foul trouble.
But, when they all stepped back on the floor in the second half, it was business as usual and the fourth quarter felt more like Bobcat basketball than the first three frames. A 26-6 fourth quarter from Northeastern gave it the program's first ever District 3 title, capturing the 5-A crown over Mechanicsburg, 61-44, at Giant Center.
"We just tried to tell each other to stay positive," Coleman said about the team trying to withstand its foul issues. "We knew we were going to come out and play as hard as we could and go on a run and just tell everyone to stay positive with the foul trouble, keep playing smart and try not to get anymore."
Trailing by three entering the fourth quarter, the top-seeded Bobcats still had yet to find their stride. They finally grabbed a lead for the first time at the 2 minute, 16 second mark of the third quarter at 35-33, but it was briefl and all it did was spur a 5-0 run for the No. 2 Wildcats (22-6) to close out the quarter and carry a 38-35 lead into the final frame.
A championship charge: But, the fourth quarter, that was Northeastern's time to shine.
The Bobcats (27-2) turned up the intensity on defense, causing numerous Mechanicsburg turnovers, which translated into easy transition buckets for Northeastern. Before the Wildcats even knew what hit them, they weren't only trailing, but trailing by multiple possessions.
All momentum completely swung when Coleman put a Mechanicsburg player on a poster with a monster two-handed dunk, which only energized the Bobcats even more and deflated the Wildcats even further.
When everything finally came to a merciless close for Mechanicsburg and the final horn sounded, it was a tremendous 20-point swing for Northeastern and a district title to take home to the trophy case.
Even with all the momentum-changing dunks and plays that the Bobcats had in the fourth quarter, most of the players and coaches were in agreement that things ultimately changed when Wildcats' starting point guard, Kyle Scheib, had to exit the game with foul trouble. That allowed Northeastern to press more and play more its style of basketball.
"They have a great guard and he controls the game for them," Mulbah said. "When he came out of the game, we knew it was time to pick it up and started to press a little more."
Managing foul trouble: While the fourth quarter will be what this game will be known for on both sides, it was hardly that way in the first half.
During one point to close out the first half, Bobcats' head coach Jon Eyster had four freshmen on the floor, along with senior Austin Greene. At the time, that was the pivotal point in the game, as that group managed to hold the Wildcats to just a five-point halftime advantage.
"We were able to kind of stay close and manage it a little bit," Eyster said about the first-half foul trouble. "We wanted to manage it a little better and kept attacking. We just wanted to get to the second half when we got in that foul trouble and I don't know how many freshmen we had on the floor at one point in time, but they did a nice job."
That in itself seemed like a win and when Northeastern came back out for the third quarter, it got itself back into a rhythm.
Mulbah was the last of the starters to get pulled in the first half for foul trouble after receiving his technical foul, which gave him two personal fouls. Before that, however, he took it upon himself to carry the bulk of the Bobcats' scoring and led the charge in the second half with a game-high 27 points. The only other player for Northeastern to crack double figures in scoring was Greene, who was active in getting to the basket and drawing contact, scoring 10 points.
The Bobcats had no answers for Mechanicsburg's big man down low, Cade Alioth, who finished with 26 points. The 6-foot, 5-inch senior was 10 of 15 from the floor and the only real scoring threat the Wildcats had.
Squashing demons: The district victory was the second major piece of hardware the Bobcats captured so far this season, after winning the York-Adams League championship two weeks ago.
However, this title signified much more. Not only was this just the second time Northeastern ever played in a district championship, with the first coming back in 2004, but it also put to rest all of the demons the Bobcats have dealt with in past years.
This is the third consecutive season that Northeastern has won at least 20 games in a season, yet, the previous two years, the Bobcats finished woefully short of a district crown, including last year's first-round exit as the No. 3 seed in 4-A.
So, this meant so much more and was received with great pride.
"We went pretty far the past two years and then we ended up losing," Coleman said. "So, just to know that we brought this out for all our alumni, our friends, our family and all the Northeastern people, it feels great."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org
NORTHEASTERN 61, MECHANICSBURG 44
Northeastern scoring: Coleman 3 1-2 8, Q. Mulbah 0 0-0 0, Greene 4 2-5 10, Rizzuto 3 1-2 8, Simpson 0 0-0 0, F. Mulbah 9 7-12 27, Wilson 2 0-0 5, Sanderson 0 0-0 0, Brodbeck 0 0-0 0, Eyster 1 0-0 2.
3-pointers: F. Mulbah (2), Coleman, Rizzuto, Wilson.
Totals: 22 11-21 61
Mechanicsburg scoring: Homick 3 0-0 6, Scheib 0 1-2 1, Everett 1 0-0 3, Laudenslager 1 0-0 2, Mayernick 2 0-0 5, Alioth 10 7-8 26, Babcock 0 0-0 0, Deiter 0 0-0 0.
3-pointers: Everett, Mayernick.
Totals: 17 8-10 44