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Merrimack Valley 55, John Stark 52

Pride on top in see-saw battle

Upstart Generals fall just short in upset bid

  • John Stark's Serge Boucher, center, goes for a shot after getting around Merrimack Valley's Nate Mulleavey in boys basketball on Friday night, February 21, 2014.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    John Stark's Serge Boucher, center, goes for a shot after getting around Merrimack Valley's Nate Mulleavey in boys basketball on Friday night, February 21, 2014.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • From left, John Stark's Cooper Gorski and Merrimack Valley's Justin Williams battle for possession during the boys basketball game on Friday night, February 21, 2014.<br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    From left, John Stark's Cooper Gorski and Merrimack Valley's Justin Williams battle for possession during the boys basketball game on Friday night, February 21, 2014.
    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • John Stark's Serge Boucher, center, goes for a shot after getting around Merrimack Valley's Nate Mulleavey in boys basketball on Friday night, February 21, 2014.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • From left, John Stark's Cooper Gorski and Merrimack Valley's Justin Williams battle for possession during the boys basketball game on Friday night, February 21, 2014.<br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

WEARE – John Stark and Merrimack Valley swapped the lead 11 times in the second half last night. And even though MV junior Justin Williams was in the middle of the back-and-forth action, he still needed some proof it was actually happening.

“I was definitely checking the scoreboard all the time,” Williams said. “And I was like, ‘Time is running out, and they’re still with us?’ ”

Williams’s question was understandable. When these two teams met in the Capital Area holiday tournament in December, the Pride rolled to a 24-point decision. But last night at Stark, the Generals buried big 3-pointers, fought on the glass and even held a one-point lead with less than three minutes left before Merrimack Valley pulled out a 55-52 win.

“John Stark outplayed us tonight,” MV Coach Kevin O’Brien said. “Sometimes one team gets outplayed and still wins, and that’s what happened here. … But we got another win, and hopefully this one will secure our place in the playoffs.”

With 2:28 left on the clock, the Generals (3-13) took a 52-51 lead on a 3 from Zach Gagnon, the senior who sparked his team to an early lead on senior night and finished with a team-high 13 points. The Pride (6-10) eventually answered with an offensive-rebound putback from Bruce Barton with 1:39 left to go up 53-52, and then added to that lead with 53.1 seconds remaining on a pair of clutch free throws from Ryan Head (11 points).

The Generals had two possessions after that, but all three of their 3-point attempts were off the mark, including an open look from Gagnon with four seconds remaining that just missed, and, after that rebound caromed around, a desperation heave at the buzzer from Carson Dunn.

“That’s all you can hope for,” Stark Coach Mike Smith said. “I was thinking about calling a timeout there, but we got an open shot with our best shooter, so we’re not going to draw it up or get anything better than that.”

Smith couldn’t have drawn up a better start, either. Behind a pair of 3-pointers from Gagnon, the Generals jumped out to a 12-4 lead. While Stark was riding the emotion of senior night and Gagnon’s hot shooting, the Pride was trying shake off the effects of Thursday night’s heartbreaking 60-59 overtime loss against Plymouth, and trying to forget everything it thought it knew about the Generals.

“It was definitely on our minds that we had just lost that close game, and we weren’t really too worried about (Stark),” Williams said. “We blew them out of the water in the holiday tournament (59-35), but they looked like a whole new team tonight. Their defense was way more intense that I expected and they hit shots. We didn’t really come with enough energy at first, but we picked it up.”

The Pride started picking things up toward the end of the first, scoring the final four points of the opening quarter as part of a 9-0 run that gave MV a 15-14 lead early in the second quarter. That spurt began with a steal and a layup from J.T. Driscoll (six points) and ended with a post bucket from Williams, who scored eight of his game-high 17 points in the second.

MV pushed its lead to 24-16, but Stark closed the first half on a 7-0 run sparked by the passing of freshman center Drew McQuarrie, who led the Generals in rebounds (10) and assists (six) to go along with his seven points.

“I thought (McQuarrie) played well, we had a hard time keeping the ball away from him,” O’Brien said.

With his team holding a tenuous 24-23 lead at halftime, O’Brien delivered a short talk in the locker room. But the MV players filled in as necessary.

“As a team we got together and talked about the things we needed to do and tried to pick each other up,” Williams said.

The Pride did play better after the break, but still couldn’t shake Stark. The Generals got two 3-pointers in the third from Jordan Tucker (11 points) and MV’s lead was still one, 38-37, when the fourth quarter started.

The bigger Pride finally asserted itself on the glass in the final frame, and MV junior Cole Remillard scored five of his 10 points in fourth, but Stark responded the way it did all game – from beyond the arc. Serge Boucher (13 points) delivered two 3s in the fourth while Tucker and Gagnon each hit one as the two teams provided some seesaw entertainment.

“We did hit a lot of 3s, but that’s what they gave us,” Smith said. “The boys played well tonight. That’s about as good as we can play. We obviously wish a few things had bounced differently at the end, but I thought we played well.”

While it wasn’t the best night for MV, the Pride needs every win it can get right now as it fights for a playoff spot. And with the win secured, MV could appreciate the benefits of playing in a tight contest.

“It’s kind of fun to be in a game like that because you play with that urgency, you’re so alert and you really kind of zone everything else out,” Williams said. “Those are the fun games.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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