The Merrimack men’s basketball team shocked the basketball world on Friday night, upsetting Northwestern of the Big Ten, 71-61, at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Chicago.
The win was Merrimack’s first as a Division I program.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo. “It was 8-0 but then we settled in and it never felt like we were playing against this giant team. It was just another game, our guys were locked in and they executed.”
Merrimack entered the game after a crazy 48-hour period. The Warriors opened their season on Wednesday and lost by 20 points to a Maine team that won just five games all of last season. Then, the Warriors bussed back to North Andover, arrived at 2 a.m., and about 80 percent of the roster had an 8 a.m. class that was mandatory.
From there, the team watched film around 10:30, hit the floor for a short 20-minute practice, and then made it to the airport for a flight to Chicago.
“We got through it,” Gallo said. “I think the guys were even a little embarrassed after Wednesday, so they were itching to get back out and prove themselves.”
The Warriors had a one-point lead at the half and began to fall behind in the second half before closing a small gap and opening a lead.
“They outplayed us,” said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins. “They deserved the win. Their energy level was high the whole game, their zone gave us problems. We didn’t do a great job with some careless turnovers, and when we had some chances around the basket we never were able to get any separation. Their zone lulled us to sleep and it was effective. We were never able to get out in the open floor.
“Merrimack played an outstanding game. Jensen’s three’s were huge in the first half and Hayes, their point guard, dominated the whole second half with his ability to get into the paint and make plays for others.”
Gallo thought his team played more to their identity against the Wildcats.
“We trusted what we do every day,” he said. “The other night against Maine, we had some jitters. We did some things defensively that were shocking. But tonight we stuck to our gameplan and we stuck to what we’ve worked on all summer. We were back to being who we are.
“I think if you asked all of our guys if we belonged, they would say yes, but it would be easy to have some uncertainty after that first game. We emphasized that we have good players — DI players — and what we did in the past will not stop working just because we’re playing DI teams. … A marquee win like this, people start to recognize.”