Northeastern ran wild en route to lopsided PIAA tournament win. (Teddy Feinberg/GameTimePA.com)
MANHEIM TOWNSHIP - It was a battle of size versus speed. And under those circumstances, the Northeastern Bobcats flourished.
Led by their pack of talented guards, the Bobcats blew by Upper Merion, 61-40, Thursday night in the second round of the PIAA Class 5A boys’ basketball tournament at Manheim Township.
On paper, it looked like a challenging matchup for the Bobcats. Upper Merion brought in a big and experienced team, headlined by 6-foot-8 big man Matt Faw.
But the Vikings were also more methodical in style. And while Faw brought a good skill set to the court, he hovered more on the perimeter as opposed to camping out in the low post.
In turn, the smaller Bobcats played strong defense, rebounded effectively and got into their transition offense.
“Our kids did a good job helping, digging down and rebounding,” Northeastern head coach Jon Eyster said. “We knew if we could get their misses, that we could beat them down floor. ... We wanted to get those rebounds, and push it.”
Northeastern raced out of the gate early, and was aided by Upper Merion foul trouble. The Vikings were whistled for 10 first-half fouls, while the Bobcats were called for just three.
The disparity clearly got the best of Upper Merion. Faw had three fouls and picked up a technical late in the second quarter. Point guard Aiden Newell also was called for three fouls and saw time on the bench in the second period.
The Bobcats capitalized, taking a 29-19 lead at halftime.
“That’s where we wanted to be,” junior guard Fred Mulbah said. “They have to come out and guard us at that point, and we can just go by and get our layups.”
Upper Merion coach Jason Quenzer said the first-half fouls “changed the game.”
“As mad as I was in the moment, you can never blame the refs,” Quenzer said. “And there was some good calls in that mix. It wasn’t like we didn’t foul them at times. But you get frustrated when you look up and you see eight to two (fouls), eight to three.”
Those calls balanced out in the second half — each team was whistled for five apiece in the final two quarters — and the game turned more physical. Upper Merion cut the deficit to 34-31 late in the third quarter, and Northeastern appeared to be on the ropes.
But the Bobcats went on a quick 7-0 run to close the quarter. Antonio Rizzuto drained a big 3 from the corner, and Northeastern scored quickly following that. Suddenly, the Bobcats were back up by 10 points, 41-31, entering the final period.
“Big 3, a couple buckets in transition to put it back to 10,” Eyster said. “And then we kind of settled down.”
Another Rizzuto 3-pointer pushed the lead to 46-31 early in the final frame, and from there it was a runaway.
“Northeastern just stayed mentally strong,” Quenzer said. “Think they scored 14 straight. Credit to them. They’re a good team, a complete team. They’re going to be tough to take down.”
Rizzuto scored 24 points for Northeastern while Mulbah and Brandon Coleman each finished with 14.
The Bobcats’ memorable season continues. The team moved to 29-2 overall and will face Archbishop Carroll on Saturday in the tournament quarterfinals. Archbishop Carroll beat Palmyra, 78-41, in Thursday’s second round.