EASTON, Mass. – Leading by nine with just over six minutes to play, the Merrimack men's basketball team watched its lead evaporate into a two-point deficit before freshman Gelvis Solano (New York, N.Y.) tied it up at 56-56 with 24 seconds to go. But Stonehill came down and on the final possession Josh Heyliger tipped a missed layup into the basket as the buzzer sounded, as the Skyhawks stunned the Warriors, 58-56, in a wild Northeast-10 Conference matchup on Sunday night at Merkert Gymnasium.
The Warriors fall to 9-13 overall with a 6-11 mark in league play, splitting the season series with the Skyhawks (11-10, 7-10 NE-10) by virtue of the defeat.
With five games to go, Merrimack now must dig itself out of a two-game hole in the standings. The Warriors now sit in 12th, one back of Stonehill and two (due to the head-to-head tiebreaker) back of Saint Rose with games against first-place Saint Anselm and sixth-place UMass Lowell coming up this week.
Merrimack outscored the hosts by six (37-31) in the second half after trailing by eight at the break, but an 18-7 Stonehill run over the final six minutes completed the dramatic comeback from a nine-point deficit, as the loss keeps the Warriors winless (0-8) on the road this season.
The loss comes despite a career game from senior Mike Clifford (Danvers, Mass.), who finished two shy of his personal best in scoring (26) and tied his career-high in rebounding (14) while finishing 13-of-18 from the floor. Behind him, Solano added 12 points, while both added three blocks apiece to lead the Navy and Gold.
Merrimack held a slight edge in shooting, finishing 26-for-65 (40.0) overall while going just 3-for-12 (25.0) from downtown and 1-of-9 (11.1) from the free throw line. Stonehill mustered a 21-of-60 (35.0) clip from the field but finished 5-of-22 (22.7) from the arc and an impressive 11-for-12 (91.7) from the line, a mark that more than factored into the final outcome.
The Warriors owned a 48-37 edge in rebounding, but committed 16 turnovers to Stonehill's 11, leading to a 17-7 edge in points off turnovers for the home side. Merrimack did dominate the points scored in the paint battle (38-26) thanks to its dominance down low, but that proved not to be enough down the stretch.
Brian Hamor led the Skyhawks with 14 points, finishing 2-for-4 from long range and 5-of-9 overall, while Adam Fazzini added 11 points, as well. Jack Cole hauled in a team-high 10 boards and added a game-high five rejections, while Sam Markle posted seven in his starting role, as well.
Stonehill opened up the contest with a 3-pointer and that early momentum set up a back-and-forth first half that was more of a defensive battle than the score indicated. The Skyhawks led for all but one brief moment of the opening frame, building up a six-point lead (12-6) in the first eight minutes of the match.
Merrimack, however, reeled off seven consecutive points, capped off by a basket from freshman Troy Hammel (Valencia, Calif.) to put the visitors momentarily ahead, 13-12, with 9:34 to go in the half. But 30 seconds later a basket from Markle sparked a 10-0 run that pushed the home team ahead by eight, 21-13, with just over five minutes to go in the half.
From there on out, both sides would trade six points apiece before one final layup from Cole edged the Skyhawks ahead, 27-19, with 3:04 to go. Neither side would get to the basket over the final three minutes of the frame, as the Warriors went into the intermission trailing by eight.
Both sides shot under 40 percent in the opening 20 minutes, with Merrimack making just 1-of-6 (16.7) from long range while Stonehill 2-of-9 (22.2). The difference came at the stripe, where Stonehill nailed all seven of its free throw chances, while Merrimack missed the only two opportunities it had in the first half. Turnovers were also costly for the Warriors, who committed 10 giveaways compared to just three for the home side. Stonehill made sure to capitalize on those chances, owning a 10-0 edge in points off turnovers in the opening half.
The visitors stormed out of the gate to start the second half, as the Warriors quickly made an eight-point deficit evaporate by means of four consecutive baskets from four different players to start the stanza. Both sides would go basket-for-basket until Stonehill went ahead on a triple from Pierce Cumpstone with 12:16 to go.
Undeterred from the deficit, sophomore Ryan Woumn (Lynn, Mass.) ignited the bench with his first trey of the game, sparking 13-0 run capped by back-to-back and-one baskets from Clifford to push the Warriors ahead, 49-40, with under six minutes to go, sealing a run by the Merrimack defense that kept the Skyhawks off the board over nearly five full minutes.
But Stonehill stormed back, mounting its game-deciding 18-7 run on a three-point play from Markle before eventually taking the lead on Hamor's final 3-pointer of the contest, giving the home side a temporary 52-51 lead. Solano would then respond with his only triple of the game, putting Merrimack ahead, 54-52, with 1:21 to go.
That sparked a wild final minute of play, as Fazzini tied it up on a layup before the hosts capitalized on a huge Merrimack turnover thanks to Heyliger notching a pair of freebies. Solano would then come back down the floor, slice through the lane and tie it up at 56-56 with under 30 seconds to go, and the game appeared as if it were destined for overtime.
But on the last possession of the game, a Stonehill 3-pointer from Markle did not connect, leading to one final layup chance. The initial shot did not go, but Heyliger was there to tap it in mere milliseconds before the final buzzer. After a brief conference, the officiating crew ruled that the basket counted, giving the Skyhawks the win in dramatic fashion.
The Warriors will regroup and head to Saint Anselm for a Wednesday (Feb. 13) night showdown against the first-place Hawks. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.