Too much Green
Merrimack wanted one more shot at undefeated Manchester Central. The third-seeded Tomahawks got exactly what they asked for. For 5 minutes and 11 seconds Saturday afternoon, Merrimack (19-3) made its bid for an upset over the top-seeded Little Green (22-0) in Lundholm Gymnasium on the campus of the University of New Hampshire.
Trailing by 16 heading into the fourth quarter, Merrimack opened the final frame on a 14-2 run to cut its deficit to four with 2:49 remaining in regulation. Eric Gendron scored eight of his game-high 32 for the Tomahawks
during that span, but the Little Green called a timeout and quickly spun momentum back in their favor to deny any upset and finish undefeated with a 70-61 victory in the Division I boys basketball final.
“We were relentless. We’re going to keep battling no matter what,” said Gendron of Merrimack’s rally. “Whether you’re down 30 or up 10 you keep battling. I think that served our team right this year. We always stayed with it, no matter if we were up or down. We were relentless and we showed that tonight.”
Central coach Doc Wheeler did what he could to stop the bleeding by calling that timeout with 2:49 remaining.
“I told them ‘All we need is one good possession to turn momentum,’ ” Wheeler said he told his players in the huddle. “’All we need is one good possession. If you can get a two or three points here, you’ll flip the whole momentum.’
“To our players credit, we had about a 25- or 30-second possession, got a wide-open look and Joey Martin drained that three. That was huge, it flipped the whole game. That one possession just killed the momentum.”
Martin, who finished with 20 in the win, hit the 3-pointer with 2:09 remaining. A Merrimack miss on the other end turned into a three-point play by Brett Hanson (team-high 24 points) as he drove to the net for two and sunk his free throw to up the Little Green lead back to 10 with 1:45 to play.
Gendron hit both free throws in a one-and-one situation to cut the lead to eight, 64-56 with 1:37 left, but it’s as close as the Tomahawks could get in the closing minute.
“I’ll tell you it’s unbelievably hard. I say this to the kids all the time, it’s hard to win. It’s hard to win a game. To go 25-0 is just – I can’t tell you,” said Wheeler of Central’s perfect season, including three wins in the Queen City Invitational during Christmas break. “Two-thirds of the way through the season I started getting nervous for almost every game. I just didn’t want the guys to get disappointed. You know, if you lost a regular season game a lot of people would say no big deal, but it was to us. That type of motivation kept us focused in practice and I really think it helped us build and to get better in a lot of different ways.”
It was all Central all the time in the first half. the Little Green raced out to 16-6 lead with two minutes to go in the first quarter, highlighted by an emphatic dunk by Joey Martin to end the run. Gendron cut the lead in half with a pair of free throws before a Hanson floater stretched Central’s lead to 18-8. Gendron then chopped it back down to a seven-point deficit, draining a 3-pointer with one second left, to make it 18-11 Central after one quarter. Gendron had all 11 of the Tomahawks’ points in the frame.
“We tried to take him away,” said Wheeler of Merrimack’s senior leader. “We had certain things in the game plan just to take him away. That’s just how good that kid is. He’s just a wonderful player.”
The second quarter was much of the same, as Central would hit a couple shots to every one for Merrimack, which only scored nine in the frame – all courtesy of Bourque. The Little Green scored 15 as a team and went into halftime with a 13-point advantage, 33-20.
Bourque knew something special was going to happen in the second half. Just like in the regular-season meeting between the schools, which Central won 62-59.
“We were down,” he said. “We were down probably 15 – the biggest deficit at one point – but we knew we had the ability to come back. We just needed to get some stops, and we did. We worked down to four and they just cut us off.”
The loss wraps up an impressive high school career for Gendron, who closed out his time at Merrimack with 1,329 points – the final two of his career coming on a crossover, dribble behind the back, hard drive to the net for a ferocious dunk with a few seconds on the clock.
To see this group of seniors end their careers on the biggest stage, despite the loss, was special for Merrimack coach Tim Goodridge.
“They’ve been together with coach Gasper since they were little kids,” Goodridge said, referring to assistant coach Mike Gasper. “He’s taught them really well. They are special.
“And Eric Gendron is a special player, let’s not kid each other. They come along once every 20 years or 10 years maybe at your school, and you get one of them and you want to keep them.”