NORTH ANDOVER — Javon Bennett and Jordan Derkack soared into each other’s arms for a massive bear hug. Ziggy Reid galloped toward midcourt, screaming. The bench cleared, the lights dimmed, and fans inside Lawler Arena erupted.
For the Merrimack men’s basketball team, the dream season was complete.
The Warriors stunned Fairleigh Dickinson, 67-66, on Tuesday to capture their first Northeast Conference tournament title. Merrimack is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament until next year after transitioning from Division 2 to Division 1, but in the moment, this was the only championship the Warriors cared about.
“We finally did it,” said Reid, who earned tournament MVP honors. “We finally made it.”
The top-seeded Warriors (18-16) — also the regular-season conference champion for the second time in four seasons — outlasted the No. 2 Knights (19-15) in thrilling fashion. They erased a 7-point deficit with three minutes remaining and played stellar defense in the final seconds.
“We won a typical Merrimack rock fight down the stretch,” coach Joe Gallo said.
Bennett took a charge to set up a Jordan Minor 3-point play with 36.9 seconds remaining that tied the game. The Warriors then made a stop, which was followed by a FDU foul and Jordan McKoy hitting a go-ahead free throw with 8.7 seconds remaining for the final point.
Demetre Roberts’s 3-point attempt didn’t fall for the Knights, and the Warriors celebrated in style.
The triumph was many months, and years, in the making. After starting the season 3-14, Merrimack completed an improbable turnaround to clinch two banners.
“It’s all just come together,” said Minor. “I’m so proud of this program.”
Reid (23 points), Minor (19 points), and McKoy came off the bench for the 2019-20 team that won the regular-season title in its first Division 1 season. Together, they helped put Merrimack on the map, in Massachusetts and beyond, and their contributions will have a ripple effect for years to come. The seniors punctuated their careers with an exclamation point.
“People ask me which team’s better,” Gallo said. “I don’t know.”
The Warriors, who rely on zonal chaos and pester teams with their relentless ball-pressure, have done it their own way. Gallo has found players who fit his system perfectly, and collectively, they make life uncomfortable for their opponents.
It’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing style, but their unwavering commitment to their craft has helped set them apart in the NEC.
Next year at this time, once its transition to Division 1 is complete, Merrimack will have a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Until then, a Northeast Conference regular season and tournament title will suffice.
Despite the result, Fairleigh Dickinson will represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA requires teams to wait four years before competing in March Madness, in large part to ensure they’re fully committed to the move and can handle the rigors that come with the transition.
“March Madness is a big deal, but this is a big deal, too,” Reid said. “For us, and for this program.”
Trevor Hass can be reached at email@example.com.