In a potential D-I Final Four preview match up, the Manchester Central Little Green once again cemented their status as the top boys basketball team in the NHIAA by defeating Merrimack in a battle of undefeated teams. Merrimack put up a very good fight though, giving Central all they could handle. The Little Green led by as many as 13, 53-40 in the 4th quarter but then the Tomahawks made a spirited comeback with a 19-7 run to close within 60-59. Central was able to hold on though for the 62-59 win behind a game-high 20 points from junior guard Brett Hanson, 19 points from Joey Martin and 15 points by Jon Martin.
"We showed a lot of character tonight" said Merrimack head coach Tim Goodridge. "We went in their gym, against the best team in the state, we have nothing to be ashamed of. These are the kind of games you want to play in. Our goal was to see where we measured up against them, and I'd say we measured up pretty good."
Even more impressive for Merrimack was the fact that the majority of their 4th quarter comeback came with star player and last year's D-I Player of the Year Eric Gendron on the bench as he fouled out with 4:19 remaining. But junior guard Austin Franzen (scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the 2nd half) and Shayne Bourque (12 points and 8 rebounds) both really stepped down the stretch.
Still, Central was just too good. Merrimack closed to within 34-32 mid-way through the 3rd quarter, but then the Little Green went on a 19-8 run to go up 53-40 late in the 3rd quarter. That run was led by Hanson and Jon Martin, as Martin knifed his way to the rim for 2, then after a layup and mid-range jumper by Merrimack sophomore Ian Roberts it was Martin again getting inside for an and-1 finish. Then Hanson hit a tough floater, Central led 47-40 after 3 quarters and they got a couple quick buckets to start the 4th quarter to take a 53-40 lead.
That's when Merrimack started their comeback, as Gendron hit a jumper but fouled out right after that with 15 points. When he left the game it was 53-44 Central with just 4:19 left. Then came a bizarre play, as Central forward Tyler elly was at the line for 2 FTs. He hit the first but then as he got the ball back said something to a Merrimack player and got a technical foul for taunting. That was his 5th personal foul, so he had to leave the game. Dawson Dickson came in to shoot Kelly's other FT and missed it. Then Franzen hit both of the technical FTs for Merrimack, plus the Tomahawks get the ball back. Soon after that Franzen makes a nice move off the dribble to get in the lane, and hits a tough leaner after using a nifty up-fake to free up his shot. The shot was good and Merrimack is now only down 58-52 with 2:01 left in regulation.
Hanson got pressured hard defensively on the other end and was called for a 5 second violation and then Merrimack senior Mickey Gasper hits a jumper from the elbow to cut the Central lead to 58-54 with 1:09 left. Merrimack fouls to put Central on the line, where Mike Plentzas missed both free throws. Then on the other end Franzen drains a big time 3-pointer from 4 feet behind the line and it's now 58-57 Central. What a great comeback by Merrimack!
"Franzen has really progressed well" said Coach Goodridge. "He doesn't give up much defensively, he rebounds, and he takes the scoring pressure off Gendron and Bourque even though I think sometimes he gets overshadowed by them."
This time Merrimack fouled Jon Martin, and he made both FTs. So it's Merrimack ball, down 60-57 with about 20 seconds left. Franzen has the ball, looking for a look at another 3. Central is defending him tough though and not letting him get open. With time running out and unable to get a look at a 3, Franzen, zips a pass over to an open Dylan Richardson inside for a layup. So Merrimack is again with 1 at 60-59 but now there's only 8 seconds left. The Tomahawks need a quick steal or a foul but they don't get either. Central breaks their press, and Jon Martin lays it in at the buzzer as Central wins 62-59.
This game had a high level of play, and with a packed gym and both student sections rocking it had a playoff atmosphere as well. Merrimack has probably been hearing all about Central and how everyone is saying they're the best team in the state, yet the Tomahawks were actually the sharper team early on. Bourque muscled his way inside for 2, Gendron hit a 3 and then Bourque hit 2 foul shots, as Merrimack jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead to start the game. Central responded with a 7-2 run of their own, as Jon Marton had an and-1 and Nick Makris drew a charge on Bourque. Franzen hit a tough leaner, and then Gendron connected on a pull-up jumper right before the buzzer, and Merrimack led 15-7 after 1.
Central came out firing to start the 2nd quarter, pressuring on defense and attacking on offense. Hanson made a steal and exploded to the rim for a layup. Then Hanson drove into the lane and made a nice dish to Joey Martin for 2. After those 2 quick buckets Coach Goodridge called timeout to settle his team down. Out of the timeout was some fact paced action and an offensive flurry with lots of quick hoops on both ends but most of them were by Central. Hanson and Plentzas scored for Central and Richardson scored for Merrimack. Then Hanson hit a pull-up jumper to tie it up 17-17 with 5:15 left in the 1st half. On the next trip down the floor Hanson took a charge on Gendron. Again it was Hanson with a big play, catching a pass inside off a baseline out of bounds play and while still in mid-air laying it in for 2.
Jon Martin hit a foul line jumper to put Central up 22-19, but Franzen answered back with a tough bucket inside. Then it was Hanson again with a great move, leading the break with Gendron guarding him. Hanson crossed him up and blew past Gendron on his way to the rim for 2 more with a strong finish. Jon Martin made a nice pass to brother Joey Martin for a layup as Central was really starting to click. But then Merrimack had a couple baskets late in the half, as Franzen made a nice dish to Gendron for a layup, then Gendron hit a jumper from the elbow right before the buzzer as Merrimack closed to within 28-25 at halftime.