O'Connell's block secures Merrimack's win over Central Connecticut and a share of first place
NORTH ANDOVER — Jacob O'Connell's best contributions don't always show up in the box score.
Such was the case on Saturday afternoon when O'Connell entered the game for Bryan Etumnu in the final minute and turned away a game-tying shot from Central Connecticut superstar Allan Jeanne-Rose in the closing seconds to help the Warriors secure a 71-68 win over the Blue Devils, and climb into a first-place tie in the NEC standings.
"He's been great. He's a calming influence," said Merrimack coach Joe Gallo. "It's funny because we have a rah-rah crew, and I'm not sure he fit in when we got here in July, but he's getting there. You'll see him give a few fist pumps here and there.
"He's seven feet tall, and he plays defense with his hands up. He has good timing to get in the way. It's not always pretty, but it's effective. We have the best effective field-goal percentage defense we've ever had, and it's hard to make two-point shots against us. He's a big reason why. Brian (Etumnu) has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and then Jacob is seven feet tall. Allan Jeanne-Rose might be the best point guy in the league."
The game was back and forth for much of the afternoon. Jeanne-Rose had 23 points.
The Warriors were in trouble late after the Blue Devils pulled within two and then forced a jump ball. They had possession on the inbound. That set up O'Connell's block, and Budd Clark hit a free throw with eight seconds left to help secure the victory.
"It was an awesome game," Gallo said. "It was two teams playing as well as any team in the league. That's about what you expect.
"The big thing for us was we didn't want to give them points off turnovers. We did a good job with that and especially in the second half."
Jordan Derkack led the Warriors with 22 points. Devon Savage had 15 points on 5 for 11 shooting from three. Clark had 10 points, and Jordan McKoy had 11 points for the Warriors off the bench.
"We made this one a little bigger," Gallo said. "We don't always do that, but we did. We built it up. It's tough; if we lose this game and we go down two games, and we don't have the tiebreaker, that's a tough road back."
The Warriors remained undefeated at Lawler Arena this season. They're now 11-4 in the building and have won nine games in a row.
"We win a couple of games in there and now they've tricked themselves that nobody can beat us in Lawler," Gallo said. "That's the aura you want. We've had some great crowds."
The Warriors are off until Thursday, when they hit the road to take on Long Island.