by Dan Gardella
Fairfield – Just a few days earlier, Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina told reporters that there will be very few easy games in the Northeast Conference this season. Although the conference has its fair share of top heavy teams, there are sleepers galore all over the league.
No team has been talked about more in non-conference play than Merrimack, a team that in just their second game as a Division I program, defeated Big 10 foe Northwestern. They finished non-conference play 6-7, propelling them into conference play.
The Warriors made their presence felt in their new conference after just one game. Merrimack turned Sacred Heart over 18 times, which led to 31 points off of turnovers for the Warriors in their 65-57 win over the Pioneers, a team picked to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll.
From the opening tip, Merrimack turned up the heat defensively, stifling and suffocating Sacred Heart’s guards. Specifically Cameron Parker, who has gained national recognition for his passing ability.
“We felt like if we could make Sacred Heart play in the half-court, with the defense that we play, it’s hard to find quick shots,” said Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo. “We took a lot of the space away from them and made it a half-court game. I thought we had a good balance between our half-court and our transition off of turnovers.”
While Merrimack has proven themselves as a deep team with many different options offensively, they posed as the smaller team against Sacred Heart, who entered the game leading the conference in rebounding margin and offensive rebounds per game.
However, that did not stop the Warriors, who would find themselves in the paint time after time, led by their senior guard Juvaris Hayes, who led the Warriors with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 8 steals.
“It’s a mental thing,” said Hayes. “We give up the rebounds but when we attack, we try not to lose our heads during the game.”
Amid the turnovers and sloppy play, Sacred Heart led by a point at halftime, showing that while they were not on their A-game, they were dangerous is other aspects. However, Merrimack answered with a 14-0 run to begin the half. Charged by their stingy defense, they held Sacred Heart scoreless through the first five minutes of the second half.
Merrimack remained in the control for much of the half as Sacred Heart tried to string together consecutive successful trips down the floor. Yet turnovers would foil those plans.
That being said, it was only a matter of time before Sacred Heart would begin to mount a comeback.
They would do so with 7:39 to play. Trailing by 15, the Pioneers would go on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to six with just under five minutes to play.
But Merrimack would display what most good mid-major teams have: Mental Toughness.
On Merrimack’s next possession it seemed that it was a loss trip down the floor. But with the shot clock expiring, Mikey Watkins threw up a prayer that was answered from three-point range. The following trip, Watkins sliced through the Pioneer defense to extend the lead to 11.
Sacred Heart would not get any closer than within five.
Merrimack led for all but 12 seconds of the second half.
“This year in general we’ve lost a lot of games. It had us in our worst moments,” said Hayes. “But we stayed through it, we came into practices with a great mentality. That transitions over to the game. We have to watch each other’s back to continue to be hungry.”
Sacred Heart was led by freshman Tyler Thomas, who scored a career-high 18 points. In the losing effort, Latina believes that confidence is continuing to grow within Thomas.
“He has started to put together performances which is encouraging. We need more guys to step up like he did today. My comfort level with him has certainly grown,” said Latina.
Both teams are back in action on Saturday as Sacred Heart travels to Wagner while Merrimack welcomes Robert Morris to Massachusetts.