Ed. Note — This story will also appear in The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — Juvaris Hayes is no secret. The Merrimack junior guard has been one of the top players in the Northeast 10 since the moment he arrived on Merrimack’s campus. In these 2019 playoffs, his legend is growing even more.
Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo said that Hayes is playing the best basketball of his career in recent weeks. The result has helped lead the Warriors to Saturday’s Northeast 10 Championship Game, their first appearance in the title game since 2000.
“He’s playing at a super high level,” Gallo said. “This is as good as he’s played since he’s been here. One of the things he’s recognizing right now is he’s adjusting to whatever the game calls for.”
Merrimack beat Adelphi at home last Sunday in the NE10 quarterfinals and on Wednesday night, the Warriors hit the road and beat Le Moyne in the semifinals. The Warriors (21-9) will face New Haven on the road Saturday at 1 p.m. in the championship game.
“Earlier in the year, (Hayes) was scoring a lot,” Gallo said. “You look at the Adelphi game and they were locking off (Ryan) Boulter and Jaleel (Lord), so Juvaris had to score a lot in that game and he did. (Wednesday night) he picked his spots. Early in the game, he was getting other guys the ball and then later in the game, he recognized when the defense called for him to go make a play at the rim score himself. He’s at a really high level right now when it comes to reading the defense and figuring out if it’s his shot or if he has to get the ball to someone else. His play has really matured these last few weeks.”
Merrimack has been rated as one of the best defenses in Division II all season. One prominent site has the Warriors ranked second in the country in defensive efficiency, taking into account points per possession.
“I’m biased but I feel like we have the best defense in the region,” Gallo said. “I also think we have the best player in the region (Hayes) and a lot of great talent around him. When you have the best player and the best defense, defending at a high level, with other guys who can score, I think that gives us a chance to win every night.”
Merrimack is a virtual lock to appear in the NCAA tournament no matter the result of Saturday’s game, but the Warriors will be given an automatic bid if they win the NE10 championship. Earning an NCAA bid would mark the third straight season the Warriors advance to the tournament (every year in Gallo’s tenure).
In the only game Merrimack played against New Haven this season, the Warriors were held to their fewest points all season in a 67-55 loss at Hammel Court on Jan. 23.
“We lost that game on the offensive end,” Gallo said. “It had a lot to do with missed shots, but they’re a good half-court defensive team. They’re patient on offense and take care of the ball. They want to play a low-possession game. When we can force the temp, we should, but we have to be better than that first game. I think in the last 10 games we’ve embraced the grind. Early in the year I don’t think we were great in slug-it-out games liek this one will probably be. But we’ve embraced it over the last 10 games. Maybe we win 62-58 and there’s not a lot of points scored, but that’s OK.”
The Warriors scored 84 points in Wednesday’s 84-77 overtime win over Le Moyne, but the Warriors have scored less than 70 points in three of their last six wins.
Wednesday’s game was emotional, but Gallo said the Warriors quickly turned the page to Saturday’s championship.
“When I got to the locker room, I expected to be attacked,” he said. “The guys were excited and we had good energy, but they were sitting there waiting for me. It was time to move on and we had another game to play.”
Merrimack had Thursday off from practice but did go over video for New Haven. The Warriors will practice at Hammel Court on Friday before boarding a bus and traveling to New Haven on Friday afternoon. Tip off on Saturday is scheduled for 1 p.m.