Merrimack overcame adversity one more time en route to title
NORTH ANDOVER — The NEC championship game mirrored Merrimack's season in many ways. The Warriors started slow but finished furiously en route to a 67-66 win over Fairleigh Dickinson and the program's first NEC title.
The Warriors shot just 30 percent (9 for 30) in the first half, and everyone other than Jordan Minor and Ziggy Reid combined to shoot just 1 for 16 in the opening 20 minutes.
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"For us to only be down two at halftime was incredible," said Merrimack coach Joe Gallo. "We had good shots, we just didn't finish. But we kept getting stops and we stayed with it and then we won a typical Merrimack rock fight down the stretch."
When all else failed, Merrimack relied on its defense. That’s been the team’s bread and butter all season. The Warriors are the No. 1 turnover team in the nation, and while they didn't force an abundance of FDU turnovers on Tuesday night, they got essential stops. FDU never led by more than seven points, but they led by that number with under three minutes to play.
"When we go through stretches like that where we don't make a lot of shots, we rely on our defense," said Ziggy Reid, who led the Warriors with 23 points. "We were more aggressive and that translated to more points in the second half."
Freshman guard Javon Bennett was held scoreless in the first half, but he hit his first two shots of the second half, which lit a spark for his team. Later in the half, he picked up his fourth foul with still seven minutes to play, but he was able to play clean in the closing minutes to stay on the floor.
"The coaches told me to be smart," Bennett said. "I needed to be on the floor. I had to find ways to impact the game while not being as aggressive as I normally am on defense."
Bennett is rated as one of the top players in the nation in defensive steals.
"I have to give (assistant coach) Phil Gaetano credit," Gallo said. "He pointed out that Javon is in the top five percent in least fouls, so at some point that was going to run its course."
Bennett had four points and an assist in the final minutes.
Merrimack won the NEC regular season for the second time, repeating the feat that Merrimack's first D-I team accomplished in 2020. Merrimack's senior class were the first three players off the bench that season. Members of that 2020 team - Idris Joyner, Jaleel Lord, and Juvaris Hayes- attended the game on Saturday when Merrimack beat Sacred Heart in the NEC semifinals.
This was the first season the Warriors were allowed to compete in the NEC postseason. The league ruled last year that Merrimack would be eligible for league playoffs despite having one more year of ineligibility for the NCAA postseason.
"I wanted to win a championship," said Minor. "We did it my first year in the regular season and then we won the regular season and postseason in my senior year. Gallo and I envisioned this. All the hard work since freshman year, it paid off. The seniors on that team showed us the way and me, Ziggy, and Jordan McKoy are showing that now. I'm so proud to be a part of this program."
Reid scored 23 points while Jordan Minor had 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists as Merrimack closed the game on an 8-0 run. The Warriors finished the season on an 11-game winning streak.