McKoy's free throw clinches Merrimack's first NEC Championship
Ed. Note — This story will appear in Wednesday’s Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — When Merrimack announced four years ago that all of its sports were elevating to Division I, many skeptics said, "what's the point?"
What's the point? Nights like last night.
And what a night it was.
Senior guard Jordan McKoy hit a free throw with 8.3 seconds left (his only point of the game). The Warriors forced a miss on Fairleigh Dickinson's final possession to come away with a 67-66 win and the Northeast Conference championship.
It was Merrimack's first NEC tournament championship; this was the first championship they were allowed to participate in after moving the department to Division I four years ago. Merrimack has won the NEC regular-season championship twice in four years, including this season.
"It's an unreal feeling," said senior Ziggy Reid. "The adversity we went through this season to get here, we didn't know how this year would turn out. But we did it. We finally made it."
Merrimack started the year 2-12 in non-conference games and had yet to beat a D-I opponent when the league schedule began in December. But the Warriors closed the season on a 15-4 run, including the postseason.
"If this game happened two months ago, we probably don't win it," said Merrimack coach Joe Gallo. "Over the last 11 games, we have won in all different types of ways."
The last two minutes of the championship game were played at a frenetic pace. With Merrimack down five points, Jordan Derkack hit two free throws to bring the Warriors within a possession 66-63. Merrimack got the ball back when Javon Bennett drew a charge, and then Jordan Minor hit a layup (he was also fouled), which cut the deficit to one point (66-65). Minor's free throw tied the game.
FDU tried to run the clock down on its next possession but missed the go-ahead shot. McKoy went up for the rebound and was fouled when an FDU player came over his back. He hit one of his free throws to give the Warriors a 67-66 lead with 8.3 seconds left. Merrimack forced a missed shot from Demetre Roberts as the clock expired.
When the buzzer sounded, the Warriors stormed the floor -- followed shortly by their student section and fans -- to celebrate the title.
With all of the focus on Jordan Minor (NEC Co-Player and Defensive Player of the Year) and Ziggy Reid (the tournament MVP), McKoy, their senior classmate, hit the biggest shot of the game from the charity stripe.
"(Devon) Savage stepped up, and he had Jordan's starting spot," Reid said. "Jordan kept his composure and had that mindset that he was going to do whatever the team needs him to do. We needed him to make big plays off the bench, and he's done that all year. I love that guy. He's a brother to me."
Merrimack College showcased itself on a national stage (ESPN) and in a grand way. Lawler Arena was packed with 2,214 fans, despite the students being away on spring break.
And if it weren't for an archaic NCAA rule, which forces a four-year waiting period for programs reclassifying divisions before they are eligible for the postseason, the Merrimack men's basketball team would be dancing into the NCAA Tournament next week.
Merrimack is also ineligible for the NIT because it's an NCAA-sponsored tournament.
"When I was working out in the spring, Gallo came into the gym and told me that they were going to let us in the NEC postseason," Minor said. "I was grateful for the opportunity to play in this tournament. March Madness is the big stage, but we can't control that stuff. All year we focused on what we can control and put our best foot forward each day. That's what we did. March Madness is a big deal, but this championship and this tournament was a huge deal for us."
The NCAA Tournament is all about one shining moment? Well, this moment might be the first of many for Merrimack.
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