NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Looking for the season sweep and a huge conference win with two games to go in the regular season, the Merrimack men's basketball team makes the quick trek up to Manchester, N.H., to battle Southern New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon.
Winners of two in a row, the Warriors are seeking a sweep of the Penmen after prevailing earlier in the season at Hammel Court. Merrimack enters the day in 11th place, one game back of Saint Rose and Le Moyne for the final playoff spot.
SNHU owns a two-game advantage on the Warriors, entering the day 10-10 in conference play and tied for sixth in the league standings. The Penmen will be looking for revenge from a lopsided loss at Hammel Court back in December.
Merrimack and Southern New Hampshire are meeting for the 47th time in all-time history. The Warriors have gone 2-3 in their last five chances against SNHU, but have won back-to-back contests including an earlier 80-58 home win back on Dec. 8.
Last season, Merrimack went 1-1 against the Penmen, including a 63-59 victory at Hammel Court on Feb. 18, 2012. That win snapped a three-game losing streak against the Penmen. SNHU held on for a 73-60 win back on Dec. 10, 2011, on the road.
Southern New Hampshire holds a slight edge in the all-time series, as the Penmen own a 25-21 record against the Warriors in a series that dates back to 1969. The Penmen won the first meeting more than 40 years ago, 56-45.
In Merrimack's most recent outing, the Warriors fought back from a seven-point halftime deficit and outscored Saint Michael's by 21 points in the second half, picking up an important 71-57 road victory – their first win of the season outside North Andover – to remain in the playoff hunt on Wednesday night at the Ross Sports Center.
After back-to-back 3-pointers from leading Saint Michael's scorer Greg Grippo early in the second stanza, Merrimack would hold the hosts without a basket for nearly a five-minute span to get back in the game. Then, down by just one (41-40) with 13:25 to go, the visitors embarked on a 12-2 run enunciated by back-to-back baskets from rookie JT Strickland to push the Warriors ahead by nine (52-43) with 7:04 to play.
The home side would temporarily slice that deficit to six (54-48) a minute later, but the Warriors would respond with four of the next five baskets to put the game out of reach, as a 3-pointer by rookie Troy Hammel gave the Warriors a 63-51 lead to wrap things up with three minutes to go.
From there on out, both teams exchanged free throws until the final buzzer sounded with the Warriors on top for good, snapping a season-long, nine-game road losing streak when it mattered most.
Strickland and classmate Gelvis Solano finished the contest leading the Warriors with 16 points apiece, while senior Tyler Young and junior Kevin Regan added 10 and 11 points, respectively, to round out Merrimack's lead scorers. Young earned his fifth double-double of the season thanks to a team-best 10 boards, while classmate Mike Clifford posted two blocks and finished with nine points, as well.
After starting the season 7-3 through the first two months, Southern New Hampshire has gone an even 7-7 since the calendar turned to 2013, including a 4-4 mark in January and an even 3-3 record in February. Most recently, the Penman snapped a two-game skid with a 71-65 road win at Stonehill, helping them remain tied for sixth place in the league standings with two contests to play.
The Penmen started the year 5-0 at home, but have gone 2-5 since the middle of December. In fact, SNHU's last home win came more than a month ago, a Jan. 16 victory against Saint Rose, as the Penmen have lost three straight contests at the SNHU Fieldhouse.
Three players average in double figures for the Penmen offense. Mike Stys leads the way averaging 11.9 ppg on a 41.1 percent clip from the field. Stys also owns a 73.8 percent clip from the line, leading the way for the Penmen in that category, while also averaging 2.2 apg, as well.
Rodney Sanders chips in 11.5 ppg, while fellow starter B.J. Cardarelli (11.2) rounds out the trio of top scorers. The former has shot 41.1 percent from downtown and averages 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game, while the latter shoots 42.8 and 74.5 percent overall and from the line, respectively.
Aleksandar Dobrovic has seen a bulk of the action as of late and represents the Penmen's leading big man, averaging a team-best 5.4 rpg. Dobrovic averages 1.8 blocks per game as well and contributes 8.2 ppg on the scoring end.
As a team, Southern New Hampshire ranks ninth in scoring offense (65.5) and sixth in scoring defense (64.9). The Penmen's 40.1 percent field goal clip ranks 13th, as does their rebounding average (35.0) and rebounding margin (-1.6). SNHU has excelled at limiting opponents' long-range chances, ranking second in the league in defensive 3-point shooting (31.3 percent).