NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Looking to close out January on a high note, the Merrimack men's basketball team closes out the month with a home conference showdown against Pace University on Tuesday night at Hammel Court.
The Warriors will be also be looking to halt a three-game losing streak, as well. Merrimack opened up the month with a victory over Stonehill, but since then, the Navy and Gold own just one victory in six contests.
Pace has gone 3-4 over the month of January, but most recently rallied back to stun Franklin Pierce on the road on Saturday afternoon. The Setters currently occupy 10th place in the league standings.
Pace and Merrimack have faced off 30 times previously in a series that dates back to the 1968-69 season. Merrimack won the first-ever showdown between the schools that year, a 94-64 drubbing at home. Pace, however, holds the upper hand in the all-time series, as the Warriors have gone just 12-18 against the Setters over the course of the years.
Last year, the two teams played just once; Merrimack dropped a 71-67 decision to the Setters on the road in a back-and-forth contest that featured six lead changes.
In Merrimack's last outing, a dramatic, last-second 3-pointer by freshman Gelvis Solano sent the contest to overtime, but visiting AIC outscored the Warriors by four in the extra session to eventually prevail, 78-74, in a wild Northeast-10 Conference showdown on Saturday afternoon at Hammel Court.
With the game tied at 64-64, Jason Perrier nailed a key 3-pointer with just under five seconds remaining, putting Merrimack on the brink of defeat. But following an inbounds and a timeout, junior Kevin Regan found a wide-open Solano, who turned and fired a trey from nearly 30 feet away that caught nothing but net, sending the home crowd into frenzy as the match headed to overtime.
But after a dunk from senior Tyler Young gave Merrimack a 71-70 edge with 3:10 to play in overtime, AIC would respond by scoring eight of the game's final 12 points, as back-to-back layups from Mark Ellis following a Merrimack turnover sealed the deal for the Warriors, who could not sink key free throws down the stretch or muster another long distance shot to get back in the game.
The loss came despite Merrimack holding an 18-point advantage at halftime after outscoring AIC by a 41-23 margin in the opening stanza. The difference came by means of the Yellow Jackets' hot hand in the second half; after shooting just 31.8 percent (7-for-22) in the opening period, the visitors converted 15-of-28 (53.6) from the floor in the final 20 minutes, including a red-hot 9-for-16 (56.3) from the arc.
Merrimack saw its accurate first-half shooting percentage drop from nearly 60 percent down to 40 percent in the second stanza, as the Warriors went 10-for-24 (41.7) over the course of the second half. But in overtime, the Warriors would convert just 3-for-9 (33.3) from the floor and miss all four of their long distance shots. In fact, after starting the game 6-for-12 from long range, Merrimack would make just one of its next 12 opportunities from downtown, a mark that played a factor in the final outcome.
Entering Tuesday with an overall record of 9-8 but under .500 (6-7) within conference play, the Setters have gone 3-4 in a back-and-forth month of January.
After winning three straight games in December to move to 6-3 on the year, Pace has posted a 3-5 record since then, with a pair of two-game losing streaks during that stretch. The Setters are 4-4 both at home and on the road this season.
But most recently, Pace picked up a huge road victory at Franklin Pierce last Saturday, rallying back from a 13-point halftime deficit to defeat the Ravens, 65-62, in Rindge, N.H. The win was an important one for the Setters, who currently occupy the 10th and final playoff spot in the league standings.
Three players average double-digits in scoring for Pace. Junior forward Jonathan Merceus leads the way with 15.5 ppg, just two-tenths of a point more than senior Keon Williams (15.3). Finally, junior Denzel Primus-Devonish rounds out the trio averaging 13.4 ppg with a team-best 67 assists, nine blocks and 29 steals, while his 81.3 percent clip at the free throw stripe is the best mark on the team.
Williams represents the team's top rebounding (8.2 rpg) and shooter (52.7 percent), while Merceus is right behind him with 7.4 rpg and a 48.9 percent clip from the floor. Fellow starter Kai Smith shoots the trey most often for the Setters, as his 35.7 percent conversion rate from the arc is tops on the squad. Finally, junior Ahmad George has logged over 20 minutes per game, contributing 31 assists, three blocks and 13 steals, as well.
As a team, the Setters are one of the best second-chance teams in the league, as their 13.1 offensive rebounds per game leads the NE-10. Offensively, Pace ranks eighth in scoring (67.4 ppg) and 12th in scoring defense (69.2). The side's overall rebounding margin (-1.1) is 12th in the conference, but the Setters have committed the second-fewest turnovers in the conference (11.8). Finally, opposing squads have had success shooting against Pace, whose opponents' shooting (44.4) and 3-point shooting percentages (39.6) rank 15th and 16th, respectively.