NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Losers of three of its last four games, the Merrimack men's basketball team returns home to Hammel Court after a two-game road trip, as the Warriors play host to American International on Saturday afternoon at Hammel Court.
Saturday's contest - part of a men's/women's Northeast-10 Conference doubleheader - also continues 'Take a Kid to the Game' Weekend at Merrimack. All youth accompanied by a paying adult ($5) will receive free admission to both games.
January has not been kind to Merrimack after a 3-1 December. The Navy and Gold have won twice in six tries while falling to 13th place in the league standings. AIC has struggled as of late, as well. The Yellow Jackets enter Saturday amidst a six-game losing streak and have just two wins within conference play so far.
AIC is the fifth-longest rivalry for the Warriors in the history of the program. Saturday's showdown marks the 76th meeting in the all-time series. The Yellow Jackets lead the overall series with a 42-33 record against Merrimack. The first recorded showdown came back in the 1970-71 campaign, when AIC took down the Warriors by a score of 92-75.
Merrimack has commanded the series in recent years with three straight victories. The Warriors and Yellow Jackets have played just once in each of the last three seasons. Last year, the Warriors traveled to Springfield, Mass., and came away with a 62-49 road win back on Jan. 21, 2012, the only meeting between the two schools last winter.
The Warriors are coming off a tough setback at Saint Rose on Wednesday night. Merrimack held a 10-point lead midway through the second half, but host Saint Rose pushed ahead in the waning minutes and withheld a late charge by the visitors.
The Warriors took a four-point lead into the locker room after a back-and-forth first half, but after holding a 10-point lead midway through the second stanza, and despite a team-high 18-point output from freshman JT Strickland, the visitors could not hold on, as Saint Rose stormed back to eventually take the lead for good with 3:10 to go and withheld a late Merrimack push before ultimately prevailing by four.
After commanding the turnover battle in the first half, the Warriors committed 10 giveaways in the second stanza alone, as the hosts were able to score 13 total points thanks to 14 Merrimack turnovers. That wound up being the key to the Golden Knights' comeback, as the visitors turned the ball over three separate times during an 11-1 run by the home side.
All tied up at 59-59 with 4:26 to go, both sides exchanged buckets until Saint Rose went ahead by five (70-65) with 42 seconds to go. Both teams traded a pair of free throws before Merrimack sliced the lead to one after freshman Anthony Barry banked in a layup with 23 seconds to go, and after Tyler Sayre converted just one free throw on the back end of the play, sophomore Travonne Berry-Rogers nailed his career-high second triple to make it a one-point game (73-72) with 10 seconds left.
Following two more freebies from Saint Rose, the Warriors squandered their chance to tie it after a turnover on the ensuing inbounds. The Golden Knights iced it with one last free throw to close it out ahead by a 76-72 margin.
Entering Saturday with an overall record of 5-11 while going just 2-10 in conference play, the Yellow Jackets are still in search of their first victory in 2013, as AIC has lost six straight since its last win against Post on Dec. 30, 2012.
AIC has had its share of struggles both at home and on the road; in Springfield, the Yellow Jackets own a 3-6 record, compared to a 2-5 mark away from home.
Most recently, the Yellow Jackets dropped a 56-55 heartbreaker at home to Stonehill on Wednesday night. AIC trailed, 51-40, with 7:46 to go, but charged back by means of a 15-5 run over the remainder of regulation to pull within one. Stonehill would then miss back-to-back front ends of one-and-one free throw chances, but the Yellow Jackets' last-chance shot would not fall, giving the Skyhawks the one-point victory.
Four players average double figures in scoring for the Yellow Jackets, led by senior guard Ricky Hudson, who tops the squad with 14.5 ppg. The guard has shot 39.9 percent from the floor while distributing 41 helpers and hauling in 5.2 rpg.
After Hudson, junior Spencer Braithwaite averages 12.0 ppg and is one of the team's top threats from long range (39.0). The guard's 70 assists and 17 steals are tops on the team, as well. Finally, junior Janek Schmidkunz (10.9 ppg) and classmate David Campbell (10.1) average double figures, as well. The former has dished 28 helpers and shoots 46.2 percent from the field, while the latter leads the team with 7.9 rpg and 10 blocks, as well.
As a team, the Yellow Jackets are one of the strongest 3-point shooting teams in all of the NE-10. AIC averages 23.3 attempts from long range, the most in the conference, and its 8.4 3PG and 35.9 percent conversion rate from downtown rank second and seventh, respectively. The Yellow Jackets do own the worst rebounding margin (-2.3), but have taken care of the ball well, ranking fifth in assists per game (15.1) and fourth in turnovers (13.3).
The Warriors close out the month on Tuesday, Jan. 29, with a conference matchup against Pace at Hammel Court. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.