NORTH ANDOVER – The Merrimack College men’s basketball program gathered around the television on Sunday as a team, hoping they would have another opportunity to prove themselves.
(Ed. Note — A version of this story appears in Friday’s Eagle Tribune)
The Warriors finished higher than anyone expected in the Northeast 10 this season, claiming fourth place in their division after being picked to finish third-worst across the entire league. The Warriors, who surged to a terrific start under first-year head coach Joe Gallo, struggled down the stretch and their season looked like it ended in the league quarterfinals, on home court, in a nearly 30-point loss.
But thanks to that hot start, the Warriors have one more chance. Sunday night, Merrimack heard its name called for the 2017 NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament, and the Warriors will play at top-seeded Le Moyne tomorrow afternoon (5 p.m.) in the first round.
“All year I think people were overlooking us because we had so many new players and a new coach,” said sophomore guard Troy McLaughlin. “We played like we wanted to prove ourselves at the beginning of the year, and we struggled at the end, but this is new life for us, and we have that chip on our shoulder again.”
Despite getting most of the results they needed around the rest of the country, with favorites winning conference tournaments and therefore not eliminating at-large bids, there were stills nerves on Sunday night, when the team gathered at Gallo’s home to watch the selection show.
But once the Warriors heard their name called, not even a spelling error — Merrimack was spelled, “Merrimick” — could dampen the mood.
“When you see that name come up it’s a dream come true,” said McLaughlin. “You dream as a kid about playing in the NCAA Tournament and playing big college basketball games in March.”
The Warriors traveled to Syracuse on Thursday to prep for the tournament. Merrimack fell to Le Moyne, 80-76, earlier this season but it was a one-point game with just 14 seconds left, before the Dolphins iced the game at the charity stripe.
Merrimack will practice Friday and then play Saturday. If the Warriors win, they’ll play Sunday.
“This means everything,” McLaughlin said. “The NE10 first round was disappointing. I know, especially for the seniors, it’s good for us to get out there and put the uniform again. We want to get these wins for our seniors.”
To most outsiders, the Warriors have been underdogs all season. After graduating four out of their five starters from last season, as well as inserting a new system with a new coaching staff, it was expected that this team would take some time before things started to click.
Instead, from the first day Gallo took the job, it was full steam ahead. The lowered expectations were nothing more than excuses, and the Warriors weren’t prepared to use them.
“Coach said to us right away that this isn’t a rebuilding year,” McLaughlin said. “We knew what we had. Coach Gallo said he talked to Coach Hammel, he watched the game tape, and he knew that we could win right away. We had a chip on our shoulder. We all believed in the system and it worked.
“In our last five or six games, I think some people thought that we were just surprising people at the start of the season. Some people might think that we were burned out. But we’re going into this tournament with the attitude of showing those people we’re here to stay.”
Merrimack fell behind in the first Le Moyne game in the first half, with the Dolphins going on a run after the game was tied, 25-25. Despite battling back in the second half, outscoring the Dolphins by nine points, the deficit early was too much to overcome.
Avoiding a big hole will be critical for the Warriors.
“We’re usually pretty good in the first 10 minutes,” said McLaughlin. “Our focus is always on maintaining our energy throughout the whole game. Defense is big to our success, and if we can maintain our energy that does a lot for success on defense.”
Whether it’s the smothering defense, the rebounding of Anthony Barry, the slick ball skills of Juvaris Hayes, the sharp outside shooting of Ryan Boulter or the tough, never-say-die attitude of McLaughlin, the Warriors hopes that there’s at least one element that can put them over the top this weekend.
Merrimack has had a two-week break since falling in the NE10 quarterfinals.
“Maybe some of us were a little fatigued,” McLaughlin said, “but there is no excuse now. We had a couple of days off after we lost in the playoffs; we didn’t even touch a basketball. Then, when it looked like things were going our way with other teams, we practiced a little more and this week we had a great week of practice. We’re mentally prepared, we’re refreshed, we’re excited … we’re ready.”