MANHEIM — At this point in the season, the Northeastern boys' basketball team is used to being the smaller of two teams in a game.
Typically playing five guards, and with nobody on the roster taller than 6-feet, 4-inches, height is never on the Bobcats' side. So, when they went into Thursday's PIAA Class 5-A state second-round game against Upper Merion, a team that boasted three players over 6-6, they weren't intimidated.
Instead, Northeastern went right at the much bigger Vikings, eventually wearing them down, en route to a 61-40 win at Manheim Township High School to book a spot in Saturday's quarterfinals.
"That's their personality and mindset, they're going to go at you," Bobcats' head coach Jon Eyster said. "They don't care how big you are. They watched plenty of tape on them coming in ... they were pretty confident coming in."
While the game got off to a choppy start, in large part to Northeastern (29-2) forcing a lot of fouls on Upper Merion (18-11), the Bobcats were the side that took advantage of its opportunities. Northeastern shot 47 percent in the opening half, but made things particularly difficult on the Vikings, holding them to just 30 percent shooting in the first half, allowing the Bobcats to build a 29-19 advantage at the break.
Then, things got interesting coming out in the third.
Rather than continuing their up-tempo offense, Northeastern elected to hold the ball to begin the second half and quickly saw its lead dwindle. Upper Merion used its size down low to alter several bad shots and then got out in transition to quickly cut the Bobcats' lead to three with two minutes to play in the third quarter.
"If we played intelligently, we could have played the entire third quarter and not shot if we wanted to," Eyster said. "They couldn't come out and guard us at every position. So, we wanted to make the clock our friend early. We didn't play particularly well. We wanted to play those first two minutes smart and intelligently and we didn't."
Key run: Northeastern was bailed out when junior guard Antonio Rizzuto knocked down a pair of buckets to push the team's lead back up to eight, including one 3-pointer. By the time the third quarter ended, the Bobcats re-established their 10-point cushion, thanks in part to a 7-0 run, which was just the start of something bigger.
"We don't get flustered," Rizzuto said. "We know what we can do. It doesn't matter if we make a few bad shots, we know that we'll make that run because we're a good team."
Northeastern ultimately pushed that run out to 14-0 by scoring the first seven points to open the fourth quarter, turning a game that was once close into a comfortable margin.
The relentlessness continued for the duration of the final frame, when the Bobcats outscored the Vikings, 20-9.
Rizzuto led all scorers in the game with 24 points, while senior Brandon Coleman and junior Fred Mulbah each added 14.
The few times in the game that Upper Merion did have success on offense was when it used its size down low, getting easy buckets around the rim. Still, the Vikings rarely went to that approach. Holy Cross commit Matt Faw is more of a perimeter player, and Northeastern knew that and planned its defense accordingly.
"The 6-foot, 8-inch guy that's going to Holy Cross (Faw), we knew that he was more of a perimeter 6-foot, 8-inch guy," Rizzuto said. "The other 6-foot, 6-inch guy (Ethan Miller) that was on their team, the one I started out on, we knew he was going to be the one that was going to be physical underneath the basket. Going in, knowing that, we had to box him out and that's what we did."
The District 3 champion Bobcats will now face Archbishop Carroll in the quarterfinals with a time and location yet to be determined. Carroll, the third-place team from District 12, routed Palmyra on Thursday, 77-41.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org