ALTOONA — All year long, the Northeastern boys' basketball team never made excuses about any of its performances.
Of course, as a 30-win team which earned division, league and district championships, the Bobcats rarely had any reason to make excuses.
Monday night, however, in the PIAA Class 5-A state semifinals against Meadville, Northeastern had a more-than-reasonable explanation for an off night.
Playing its third game in five days, including a double-overtime marathon on Saturday, the Bobcats simply had nothing left in the tank.
Still, they left everything they had on the Altoona Area High School hardwood, but came up short, falling to the Bulldogs, 56-49. That left the Bobcats one win shy of playing for the state title on Friday night.
"Obviously, (the schedule) is going to give us a little wear and tear, especially after the roughness of our last game and how hard we fought," senior Brandon Coleman said. "But, we tried as hard as we could to bounce back, just unfortunately lost."
A team that prides itself on big scoring runs, Northeastern couldn't come up with one of its patented surges. The best it could manage was in the third quarter when, trailing by nine, the Bobcats eventually got the game back to level terms. However, every time after that, Meadville had an answer.
As soon as Northeastern evened the score at 36-36 late in the third quarter, the Bulldogs found another level. They ended the quarter on a 5-1 run to carry a four-point cushion into the final eight minutes. Meadville was then content to trade buckets with the Bobcats down the stretch.
"We never got over the hump," head coach Jon Eyster said. "We even tied it. But, we were never able to compose ourselves and settle down enough to get a good possession or good enough look and we missed a lot of shots."
Shots that routinely fell for Northeastern this season didn't on Monday night. Meadville, meanwhile, always seemed to have an immediate answer to extend its lead just enough to keep Northeastern on the ropes.
Even when the Bulldogs' leading scorer, Armoni Foster, fouled out of the game early in the fourth quarter, the Bobcats couldn't take advantage.
To Northeastern's credit, however, even though the team was short on energy, it did find a second gear after a dreadful opening half. Trailing 23-18 after two quarters, both the Bobcats and the Bulldogs upped the tempo in the third quarter, creating more scoring and better flow to the game, something that definitely suited Northeastern.
However, foul trouble prompted Eyster to go deeper into his bench than normal. Coleman was the one Bobcat player who scored consistently in the opening half, accounting for the team's first seven points, but he only played until midway through the second quarter before being relegated to the bench with foul issues.
That was problematic for Northeastern, which only had four players score the entire game, and just two in double figures. Fred Mulbah finished with a team-high 23 points, while Coleman added 15. After that, there was a significant drop-off, with leading scorer Antonio Rizzuto held to six and senior Austin Greene chipping in with five.
On the other side, Meadville's "Big Three" of Lashon Lindsey, Simeal Wofford and Foster carried the bulk of the scoring. They accounted for 53 of the team's 56 points, led by Lindsey's 20, Foster's 18 and Wofford's 15.
Even with the disappointment still fresh, the team's accomplishments weren't lost on any member of the Bobcats. Putting together the best season in program history, Northeastern went 30-3 overall, capturing the York-Adams League Division I crown and the program's first-ever league and District 3 championships. Northeastern also went further into the state playoffs than any previous Bobcats team.
"We had a really good year. The best in Northeastern history," the senior Greene said. "Next year, I hope everyone builds off of this. ... They're going to come back hard next year and I know they'll be back here next year."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org