NEW HOLLAND >> A few minutes from the Shady Maple, where the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord can put a smile on the sourest faces, Penncrest was living the basketball dream.
The Lions were doing just about everything right in their second round PIAA Class 5A tournament game with Northeastern. They owned a 16-point lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter at Garden Spot High, dead scoreboard bulbs notwithstanding.
And then it happened.
The Bobcats erupted for 32 points, much of it off full-court trapping pressure, to secure a 63-60 victory and a date with Abington Heights in the quarterfinals.
“We picked a very bad time to play our worst quarter of basketball in two years,” Lions coach Mike Doyle said. “Give them credit. We didn’t do what we normally do. I told our guys during a timeout that this style we were playing against was in our wheelhouse. Teams have tried to speed us out and get us out of comfort zone. And we’ve responded for two years. And we came up eight minutes short.”
The Lions (26-4) lost despite a game-high 27 points by senior Tyler Norwood, who the Bobcats kept away from the ball for a chunk of the final frame. With a few seconds left, the Lions got it to Norwood for a last shot. The 50-footer hit the back of the rim.
“Coach always says just put it on the rim, put it on the backboard,” Norwood said. “That’s all I could do. Some go in, some don’t. I saw they were trying to get the ball out of my hands. But being a senior, I was going to take the last shot, no matter what. So, I just put it on the rim. It’s tough but it’s basketball. It happens.”
The Bobcats (27-3) looked like they were cooked entering the final frame, the Lions bombing them from distance.
The Lions outscored the Bobcats, 16-7, in the third quarter to take a 14-point lead entering the final frame. When Norwood bombed a couple of 3-pointers almost from Rte. 23 to close the quarter, it sure seemed like it was going to be a long ride back to York for the Bobcats.
“A lot of things have to happen,” Northeastern coach Jon Eyster said. “We had a kid make a three who hasn’t made a three all year. Penncrest played great, they had a great defensive game plan to stop Tony (Rizzuto). But you know what, we’re still going?”
The Lions — in their haste to limit Rizzuto and point guard Fred Mulbah, who had to work hard for 16 points — gave sophomore Nate Wilson just enough space to bomb for a career-high 26 points. Wilson matched Norwood with four 3-pointers. Wilson’s layup with 45 seconds left gave the Bobcats the lead for good. Mulbah dribbled through three defenders to set his teammate up.
Skinny sophomore Andrew Brodbeck came off the bench to swish two free throws turning a 61-60 Northeastern lead with 4.1 seconds left into the final score.
“I think the lead gave us a false sense of security where we thought, ‘OK, this is going to be easy,’” Doyle said. “And for a split second, we forgot how good they really are. We blinked, they scored seven straight points and it was an eight-point game. We didn’t respect them for about 45 seconds and then we started going downhill. Still in my heart I believed it was no problem with this team, having been in so many big games. I thought we’d be able to handle it.”
Doyle wasn’t the only one unhappy with the whistles. The Lions, by their account, hadn’t been called for more than 13 fouls in any game this season. They were assessed 26 fouls, the most in the Norwood era.
The Lions built a 17-8 lead in the first quarter, Matt Arbogast pounding the offensive glass and working inside for six of his 10 first-half points. He finished with 16.
But the Bobcats wouldn’t go away. Trailing by six at the end of one quarter and as much as 10 in the next stanza, Northeastern tallied 10 of the last 12 points to cut the gap to 29-24 at the intermission.
The taller, bigger Lions were too physical inside for the Bobcats, whose tallest player was 6-3. But Mulbah, who was held to five points in the first half, used his quickness to free up teammates on the perimeter and make Norwood work for his shots.
Doyle did everything he could to comfort his players after the buzzer. He wasn’t going to let a damaging loss wipe away the legacy of the senior class, including Norwood.
“It’s going to hurt,” Doyle said. “It’s a cruel, cruel game. And I’m glad every guy is crying in (the locker room) because it means so much to them. But we’ve done things that nobody has ever done at Penncrest. There are going to be banners hanging in the gym for the District 1 tournaments, Tyler’s scoring records.
“These seniors took Penncrest to places the last two years that nobody thought they could take them competing at this level.”
Norwood, comforted by his mother and Doyle, nodded his head.
“This one stinks,” Norwood said. “It will hurt for a while. Life goes on. The sun will come up again tomorrow. It’s up to the underclassmen to keep the train rolling. Coming in as a freshman and playing in a state game, I’ll never forget that. Coach, I love that man to death. All my coaches. When I need to work out or clear my mind and shoot they open the gym and I go in and take jump shots. They’ve been unbelievable these last four years. I just thank them very much.”