In its 1st year as a Division 1 program, Merrimack men’s basketball is making some noise

"We just act like we've been here before."

The Merrimack men's basketball team has impressed in non-conference play, and the Warriors are hoping to do the same in Northeast Conference action in the coming months.
The Merrimack men's basketball team has impressed in non-conference play, and the Warriors are hoping to do the same in Northeast Conference action in the coming months. –Photo courtesy Merrimack Athletics

With the game clock at five seconds, and his team down by two, Merrimack senior guard Juvaris Hayes sized up his defender, faked right, dribbled left, and accelerated toward the basket.

He got the shot both he and his team wanted, but could only stand there helplessly as the ball rolled along the front rim for a full second before falling out as time expired.

“I watched it the whole time,” said Hayes, who was also stripped of a potential game-tying bucket due to a travel call moments earlier. “That one’s going to hurt.”

An engaged and fervent crowd groaned, and seemingly commiserated with Hayes, as Boston University escaped with a 69-67 win in North Andover on Sunday night. The loss dropped Merrimack to 6-7 overall and 2-1 at home, and it left the Warriors with an uneasy feeling – like they were stripped of something they deserved – as they wrapped up non-conference play.

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The silver lining is that they don’t have much time to dwell on this one. It doesn’t get any easier in the coming weeks, but they’re eager for the challenge as Northeast Conference play opens at Sacred Heart on Thursday, Jan. 2, at 7:30 p.m.

After finishing 22-10 a season ago, and capturing the program’s first Northeast 10 conference championship since 2000, the Warriors are getting situated in their first season as a Division 1 men’s basketball team. Life isn’t quite as rosy in Division 1 as it was in Division 2 a season ago, but Merrimack’s players and coaches are embracing the opportunity.

They know there will be some inevitable hiccups, like this one, but that doesn’t detract from the overarching goal. If anything, the difficulty of the task adds even more incentive. Though they’re not eligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2024, they’re gunning for a regular-season title and possibly a spot in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), or College Basketball Invitational (CBI).

The Warriors, including fourth-year head coach Joe Gallo, don’t view themselves as underdogs even though they were picked to finish last in the NEC. These seniors went 61-34 in their first three years, so winning is the expectation. They hope to use the next few months as a platform to prove to any lingering doubters that this is exactly where they belong.

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“We leave it to the other teams,” said Hayes, who’s the program’s all-time leader in assists. “If they believe we’re the underdogs, then that must mean they’re sleeping on us. We’re going to come in with the edge, because we’re always hungry.”

Hayes and teammate Devin Jensen said they don’t spend much time getting caught up in labels. Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, it doesn’t change their approach. What matters most is that they continue to get better and rack up wins.

The Warriors naturally play an entertaining brand of basketball. They rely heavily on Jaleel Lord (9.9 points per game), Hayes (9.5), and Jensen (7.8), but there’s no clear No. 1 option and it’s always a mystery who’s going to take the shot.

What they lack in size and strength down low, they make up for with active hands in a fluid, extended 2-3 zone. After turning in what Gallo called their best offensive half and worst defensive half of the season against BU, the Warriors responded by limiting catches in the high post and stifling the Terriers’ shooters much more effectively.

“We haven’t been in a game like that where we’re just trading baskets,” the junior Jensen said. “That’s why on the defensive end we were not lackadaisical, but not gung-ho, ready to go, just because we had been scoring the ball this game. I think that was a problem for us.”

Devin Jensen is a reliable player for coach Joe Gallo. —Photo courtesy Merrimack Athletics

Despite the increased urgency on defense in the second half, the Warriors couldn’t find a way to earn another signature win. The 2004 Merrimack graduate Gallo, who looks as though he’s playing in the zone himself with his hands up high as he barks instructions from the sideline, said he was unintentionally curt in his postgame greeting with BU coach Joe Jones.

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He then circled back to apologize for his behavior in the heat of the moment and received a great deal of praise from Jones, who suggested they talk in the coming days to help prepare each other for league play.

This was a productive initial dive into unchartered waters for Gallo and the Warriors, but now’s where the stakes are magnified. With four games in nine days, this stretch will reveal a lot about Merrimack’s chances. If the past few weeks are any indication, they’ll be up for the challenge.

“We just act like we’ve been here before,” Jensen said.

A statement road win over Northwestern started it off, a two-point triumph at UMass Lowell came next, and a home victory against Army was soon to follow. Anyone who thinks it’s a fluke at this point hasn’t been watching closely enough. The Warriors, who have the conference’s best scoring defense, have racked up 811 points this season compared to 812 for their opponents.

“It’s been a long battle transitioning from D2 where, you know, you’re one of the top teams in the nation to, I guess you could say, fitting in,” Hayes said. “Every game’s been tough. Some games we’ve pulled out, but I guess you could say our journey that we’ve been on so far, we’ve been on the road. That’s what makes this journey longer.”

Ten of their 13 games have been away from the cozy confines of Hammel Court, but they have nine conference home games still to come. The crowd of 867 on Sunday was modest in some circles but a major stepping-stone for the Warriors considering the numbers they’ve drawn in the past. The Army game on Dec. 11 this season attracted 1,500 people.

“Maybe a little more buzz in the community,” Gallo said. “To have a pretty good crowd like that, with the students not being here, that would have never happened last year. If this was Merrimack vs. Southern New Hampshire on a Sunday night at 6 last year, there probably would have been around 50 people there.”

Joe Gallo is in his fourth year as the Merrimack men’s basketball head coach, and he’s leading the Warriors in their first season as a Division 1 program. —Photo courtesy Merrimack Athletics

Gallo said his life is essentially the same this year. He acknowledged he used to get too caught up in the transition to Division 1, but now he realizes basketball is basketball.

He said he actually would have been more anxious last year if the Warriors lost this game, because it would have put more of a dent in their tournament chances.

“I would have not slept tonight because, I would have thought, ‘Oh, sh*t. We’re done. We can’t make an NCAA tournament because we just lost a home game,’” Gallo said. “I’m actually probably less stressed than I was last year, to be honest with you.”

Gallo said he recently received encouraging news from the CIT and CBI via email, congratulating the team on its start to the season and reaffirming that the Warriors are on their radar. They can also still play in the NIT if they win NEC regular-season championship.

It may not be the NCAA Tournament, but there’s still a league title and the postseason to pursue. Gallo said many people tend to look at the negative in life, but he prefers to focus on the positive.

Said Gallo: “OK, we’re not one of 11 teams that has a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, but we still have plenty to play for.”