Bobcats topple Spring Grove, highlighted by Fred Mulbah's highlight-reel dunk. (Teddy Feinberg/GameTimePA.com)
HERSHEY — Northeastern's first trip to the District 3 title game in 13 years was awaiting an exclamation point.
Something for the hot-shooting Bobcats to hang their night on, a signature play to define a high-flying season of grand accomplishments.
It came with more than three minutes left in their runaway 78-58 victory against YAIAA rival Spring Grove in Monday night's Class 5A semifinal at Giant Center.
Fred Mulbah, only 5-foot-9 but loaded with quick-twitch moves, got the ball off a turnover, only open court in front of him. The game was well in hand by then, the Bobcats up by 24.
So Mulbah took the cue and paused for a moment before heading to the basket to finish what he says was a pregame promise to a young fan. He elevated, coiled his arm back and threw down the closest thing to a windmill dunk someone his size can do.
The crowd erupted on both sides of the gym. Spring Grove called timeout. And his Northeastern teammates mobbed him briefly near halfcourt, all smiles and celebration.
Yes, the Northeastern Bobcats are going back to the district title game in style.
The top-seeded Bobcats will take on second-seeded Mechanicsburg at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Giant Center.
Fourth-seeded Spring Grove, meanwhile, falls to the third-place game against No. 6 Milton Hershey. Both will advance to the state tournament. That game is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lower Dauphin.
Monday, Antonio Rizzuto led Northeastern with 30 points, hitting from everywhere on the court — 3-pointers, jump shots, layups and dunks.
But in many ways, it's Mulbah who makes the Bobcats accelerate to speeds most opponents can't catch. It was a bonus that he also started the game sharpshooting from the outside. He had 15 points at halftime, 25 for the game.
That dunk, though?
"It was worth two points," Northeastern coach Jon Eyster deadpanned afterward.
"It's not just Fred," he said. "Fred certainly makes us hard to press. He can do things nobody else can do that we have. When we're under control ..."
Spring Grove stayed in the game, down only four at halftime, by matching the Bobcats' shooting. Eli Brooks scored 16 of his game-high 35 points and others like Drew Gordon and Jacob Messersmith hit key shots, too.
The Bobcats simply overwhelmed Spring Grove in the third quarter, when it mattered most. This came after these teams split their two regular-season meetings.
"If you don't defend you don't win," said Spring Grove coach James Brooks.
More than anything, the Rockets simply couldn't keep pace. When Eli Brooks missed a few opportunities after halftime, Northeastern zoomed away.
"When Fred knocks them down," Eyster said, "he's unguardable."
That dunk, though, is what lit up the place.
"I know him. Once he started slowing up like that (while dribbling to the basket) he was going to do something other than just a regular dunk," said Northeastern's Brandon Coleman. "Wow."
Afterward, Mulbah hugged fans for a few minutes and posed for photos and then smiled even bigger when asked about that highlight dunk. He had never pulled off something like that before in a game.
Next up, he and his teammates will try to win Northeastern's first basketball district title.
If you go
What: District 3 Class 5A championship game
Who: No. 1 Northeastern (24-2) vs. No. 2 Mechanicsburg (20-5)
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Giant Center, Hershey
Live: Follow live updates at GameTimePA.com.