This was a highly anticipated match up, as Salem came in with a 5-2 record and on a 4 game winning streak, while Merrimack had won 5 in a row and was 6-1 on the season. They're 2 of the top teams in the state, no question about it. Then earlier in the day Merrimack found out they would have to play without their star point guard for awhile.
"I broke my wrist" said Dimitri Floras, who is widely regarded as the best player in the NHIAA. "One doctor said I'll miss 12 weeks, the other doctor said 2 weeks. I had an MRI today so we'll see what it says."
However Merrimack showed just how deep and talented they were tonight. They were playing without not only Floras but also starting forward Jared Peabody who is also injured and out for about a week. However a strong team effort led by Eric Gendron (21 points) and Tyler Gendron and Jeff Giannelli (both had 12 points) the Tomahawks led for the whole 2nd half and beat a good Salem team 63-52 on Friday night in Division I boys basketball.
"Overall I think our team played a great game tonight" said Merrimack head coach Tim Goodridge. "Every kid made made a contribution for us."
The high point of the game was in the 2nd quarter, when both teams were really playing some good basketball and there was a number of lead changes. Merrimack led 19-12 after 1, but then Ben Slepian (team-high 18 points including 4 threes) and Jack Hartman both hit three-pointers right off the bat to start the 2nd quarter and get the Blue Devils right back in it. Then Hartman made a nice drive to the basket and and-1 finish, giving Salem a 22-21 lead, completing a 10-2 Salem run.
"Jack has played well for us" said Salem head coach Rob McLaughlin, about his junior forward who came off the bench and scored 9 of his 11 points in the 2nd quarter. "We've just been looking for consistency from him, and hopefully after tonight that will happen."
Then Merrimack got a lift when senior forward Kyle Richardson entered the game. Richardson is a 3-year varsity player and he started last year as a junior, he hadn't played so far this year after suffering a knee injury in the preseason.
The Merrimack student section went nuts when he entered the game, and then the Tomahawks scored back-to-back baskets by Tyler Gendron. The second one was a three-point shot from about 5 feet behind the line, and put Merrimack up 26-22.
Salem answered right back though. Danny Salvo hit a three that cut the Tomahawks lead to 1, and then on the next time down the floor Hartman grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in, as the Blue Devils re-took the lead 27-26 with under 2 minutes left in the 2nd quarter.
Once again Merrimack answered right back, and once again it was Tyler Gendron stepping outside and hitting a three. He caught a pass in the corner, shot it with a hand in his face but still made the shot, nothing but net to put the Tomahawks back up 29-27. After he hit that three the Merrimack student section started singing 'Happy Birthday' as the older Gendron brother turned 18 on Friday.
The last few minutes of the 2nd quarter was back-and-fort action with lots of lead changes, hut in the 2nd half Merrimack was clearly the better team. Between the end of the 2nd quarter and the beginning part of the 3rd, Merrimack went on a 19-6 run, and that was the difference in the game.
One player who really stepped up for Merrimack in the 2nd half was Giannelli, who had 9 rebounds in addition to his 12 points on the game. He was a force inside, grabbing rebounds and going up strong with shots and often times getting to the free throw line, which got Salem in foul trouble. At 6'6" and easily over 250 lbs. he was a tough match up for the Blue Devils.
"My tallest starter is 6 feet" said Coach McLaughlin. "With their size and length they're a good defensive team."
Senior guard Jackson King then banked in a three-pointer, giving the Tomahawks their largest lead of the game at 45-33. At that time it looked like Merrimack was in complete control and would cruise to victory.
But give Salem credit because they just kept on fighting and got right back in the game. Hartman scored inside once again, followed by another three by Slepian. Then Joe Dube converted a put-back inside and just like that the Merrimack lead was down to 5, 45-40 with 1:00 left in the 3rd quarter. It was a ballgame again.
However from that point Merrimack tightened up their defense and Salem went cold shooting the basketball. It didn't help their cause that one of their best shooters, junior wing Andrew Ruffen hasn't played so far this season.
"He injured his knee in the preseason" said McLaughlin. "We thought at first he'd miss the whole season, but he might be able to come back towards the end of the year."
Merrimack answered Salem's run with an 11-5 run of their own, pushing their lead to 56-45. The Tomahawks run started when King made a steal around half court and converted the layup on the other end. At first they awarded Merrimack 2 points on the scoreboard for the baskets, but then about 20 seconds later the scoreboard operator took 2 of those points away from the Tomahawks. They never fixed the scoreboard, so much for a home court advantage! So even though the NHIAA website says the final score was 62-52 Merrimack, it was actually 63-52.
Down the stretch Merrimack made their free throws, Eric Gendron continued to play well and Giannelli continued to dominate the paint. Tyler Gendron was definitely more quiet in the 2nd half, while Dube (9 points and 7 rebounds) battled inside and made a couple more baskets to try and keep Salem in it. Jonny Klecan also went to the basket strong and played great defensive as usual for the Blue Devils. In my opinion he's the NHIAA's best defender.
"We knew with Ruffen's injury other guys would have to step up" said McLaughlin. "We rely on Jonny a ton, and he's had a phenomenal season so far."
Merrimack held on from there for the 63-52 win. Slepian had 13 points in the 1st half but only 5 in the 2nd for Salem.
"Tyler Gendron did a nice job defensively on Slepian in the 2nd half" said Coach Goodridge. "Our defense stepped up tonight."
With this win, Merrimack showed that even if Floras does miss the rest of the season they are still a team capable of winning a state title. Especially once Peabody returns next week and Richardson gets healthier, they will be even tougher. Dimitri is a great player, and the Gendron brothers are very talented. But on Friday night these guys showed they are more than just the 'Big 3", as guys like King, Giannelli, Dylan O'Brien, Connor Whelan and Bryan Courtemanche all stepped up big.
As for Salem, we learned in this game that they are a very tough, hard nosed, blue collar team. Slepian is a great spot up shooter, Klecan is the ultimate competitor, Hartman is a dangerous weapon and Dube is a hard working power forward. These guys will win their fair share of games and could really give some teams trouble come tournament time, especially if Ruffen is able to return. However we also learned that they may struggled at times against teams with a lot of size, and that they rely a lot on the outside shooting of Slepian and also Hartman and Salvo. When those shots stopped falling they fell behind. It was also a quiet game for sophomore guard Michael Felix, who has had some big games so far this season. They will need more consistent play from him and Hartman to beat the upper-echelon teams in the league, like Merrimack.
The other issue Salem had in this game was free throw shooting. They only went 6/18 (33%) from the charity stripe. Not only were they missing their foul shots, but they put Merrimack on the line a whopping 35 times. The Tomahawks did miss 11 free throws, but that's really not that bad when you take 35 of them (it's 68%). Anytime you can MAKE more free throws than your opponent TAKES, chances are you're going to win the game.