THP #17: The Darling Becomes King

This piece was written months after attending the game. The blog got lost in the fray of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is written of its time.

February 27, 2020 – North Andover, Massachusetts
Merrimack College vs Central Connecticut State
Men’s Basketball

Everything about tonight seems like an exercise in fiction.

I was in the gym last season when Merrimack gave up a halftime lead and lost by 14 to Dominican in the first round of the D2 NCAA tournament. And yet, tonight is history.

These Warriors, in this nondescript suburb of Boston, have become the toast of college basketball coast to coast. The win over Northwestern, by 10 points no less, in just its second D1 game ever catapulted the Warriors into the national conversation.

Of course, that was a flash in the pan. Sure, upsets happen but there’s no way that the Warriors could sustain it.

But they have.

Tonight’s game against Central Connecticut is a simple one: win and you are the Northeast Conference champions. No bullshit, no asterisks, no co-champions. A win tonight and you have a banner all your own.

This one means a lot to me because I have spent my whole life in this building. I’ve been coming to Merrimack to support the Warriors for 21 years. I remember my first hockey game here, 2/26/99, a 5-2 over vaunted Boston College.

Lawler Arena sits just across the lobby from Hammel Court and I ahve grown up there.

Lawler Arena

I was seven years old when I first walked into that rink. It was just ratty wooden bleachers, a low ceiling, and a fanbase dedicated to the small school they called home. I was never a student here. Hell, I’ve been coming longer than the beat writer.

But I love this place, and I’m excited to be for this game tonight. First though, I gotta eat and I know just the place.

The Good Eats

Harrison’s Roast Beef on 125

When you go to Merrimack you go to Harrison’s. Barely a mile away from campus, Harrison’s is the epitome of a divey roast beef joint.

People across the Merrimack Valley will debate which roast beef place is the best: Kelly’s or Harrison’s. Harrison’s is the correct answer.

My go-to is always the same. A large roast beef with cheese, medium fry, pizza roll, and diet Pepsi. It never fails to satisfy. There is no ambience here. You don’t come to dine. You come to put roast beef in your face.

I have yet to find a better place to satisfy the craving.

My Harrison’s meal

The Game

The irony of Hammel Court is that it isn’t even the largest gym on its road. With a capacity of just 1,200, Hammel Court is dwarfed by the gym at Lawrence High School down the road, which maxes out at just under 3,500.

The tight confines make for an intimate affair.

The game was a battle of Merrimack’s 2-3 zone and the Blue Devils’ attempt to break it. Mack got the better of it.

Despite controlling the tempo of the game, the Warriors couldn’t shake CCSU (Central would finish the season 347 in Kenpom).

As things went on though, the Warriors asserted their dominance. Points came toward the end of the first half and Merrimack opened up a 40-30 halftime lead.

The final 20 minutes was maintenance. Merrimack held it’s lead and never let the Blue Devils cut the deficit into single digits.

The star was Juvaris Hayes. The Merrimack senior left it all on the court in his final college game. The NCAA’s all-time steals leader, finished his last game with 19 points, seven rebounds, five rebounds, and five steals in 35 minutes.

And it all ended with a conference championship.

Merrimack 69, Central Connecticut 58. Final.

Yes, it was a muted celebration. But nets were cut down all the same. A season for the history books capped with a flourish by Hayes and the Warriors.

Onto next season.

 

Thank you to everyone for following me on this journey of mine. This is a project of deep passion for me. I view college basketball as the sporting glue that connects the United States. I love it with all its warts, idiosyncrasies, and beauty.

I feel grateful to have been able to end the first season of this blog being able to see a ladder and a pair of scissors. I hit all three divisions, all six New England states, and even went to a non-NCAA school.

It’s never been about the basketball but about finding a deeper connection to New England, the place I was raised and the place I will die. So thank you again for reading. I look forward to being back soon enough with more basketball, restaurants, and adventures from walking the earth.

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