MERRIMACK – The Division I boys basketball tournament doesn’t officially start until March 6, but the crowd at Merrimack High School made Tuesday’s game feel like a playoff game.
Plenty of Merrimack students stuck around town for school vacation, and they showed up to cheer on the Tomahawks against Bishop Guertin. They also got to see the return of Merrimack’s Dimitri Floras, who returned to the lineup for the first time since breaking his wrist on Jan. 24.
Merrimack went up by as many as 14 points in the third quarter and managed to hang on to defeat the Cardinals 64-59.
The win couldn’t have come at a better time for the ’Hawks, who had lost three in a row and four of six. Merrimack had failed to score more than 45 points in five of those six games, bottoming out last Friday in a 62-31 loss at Winnacunnet, a team that had lost six in a row before that.
“We lose (Tuesda), we could lose at Manchester Central (on Friday) and we go into the tournament with five straight loses,” Merrimack coach Tim Goodridge said. “Nobody wants to do that. Losing breeds finger pointing and we don’t want that. We want to stay together as a team. I think we responded and came back well.”
Tyler Gendron scored a game-high 21 points for Merrimack (12-5) and Floras added 18 points. Eric Gendron also had 14 points as the ’Hawks overcame an early deficit in the first quarter.
The Cardinals took a 12-5 lead in the first quarter, but Merrimack erased that with a 13-0 run to go up 18-15 early in the second. A 3 by Bishop Guertin’s Nate Chartrand tied the game with 6:59 left in the half, but the ’Hawks responded, thanks to Floras.
On Merrimack’s next possession, the junior drove and kicked to Eric Gendron for a 3-pointer and then drew a foul on the next drive, making one of two free throws.
After a Chartrand layup made it 22-20 Merrimack, Floras drilled a 3 of his own. He then grabbed a rebound at the other end and made a long bounce pass to Eric Gendron for a layup and a 27-20 lead.
The ’Hawks closed the half on a 13-4 run to lead 31-22 at the break, and Merrimack scored the first five points of the third quarter to make it a 36-22 game.
With 54 seconds left in the third, Floras was fouled on a layup and had the chance to make it a three-point play, but Merrimack’s Jeff Giannelli was called for a technical after the basket. Floras missed the free throw, and Bishop Guertin’s Brad Holler made both of his. Jeff Lunn scored on the ensuing possession, and after Floras was called for an offensive foul, Holler banked in a 3 at the buzzer.
The 7-0 run by the Cardinals cut Merrimack’s lead in half going into the final quarter.
“He was called for taunting,” Goodridge said of the technical. “He hit the ball and yelled and looked at a player. He was just emotional. It really was a tremendous swing in momentum. I’m not condoning it at all and I spoke with Jeff. I don’t anticipate it happening again.”
Bishop Guertin carried the momentum into the fourth, as a 3 by Logan Kesty and a free throw by Joe McCarthy made it a three-point game. The Cardinals were able to cut the lead to two on four occasions, including two McCarthy free throws that made it 61-59 with 45 seconds left, but the ’Hawks did just enough to hold off the Cardinals.
Merrimack could have pulled away earlier, but the ’Hawks struggled at the free throw line, going 6 for 13 in the final two minutes.
Merrimack got a scare toward the end, when Floras rolled his ankle after stepping on another player’s foot. But after coming out of the game momentarily, he returned and seemed to be walking fine after the game.
“He’s missed so many games and he wants to play so bad,” Goodridge said. “The kid came every day and ran. It was great to have him back because it gives us another guy who can handle (the ball), another guy who can make decisions.”
Chartrand led Bishop Guertin with 15 points while McCarthy had 14 and Lunn 13 for the Cardinals (10-7), who had won six of seven entering the game.