Boys’ basketball: Joe Fitzgerald’s 26 points lift Pembroke over Merrimack Valley in D-II quarterfinal

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald takes a 3-pointer over center Logan Gabour in the second half of a Division II quarterfinal game against Merrimack Valley on Friday night.

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald takes a 3-pointer over center Logan Gabour in the second half of a Division II quarterfinal game against Merrimack Valley on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Merrimack Valley guard Trevor Simonds (13) fights for a rebound against Pembroke forwards Devin Riel (left) and Javien Sinclair during the second half of the Division II quarterfinal game on Friday night.

Merrimack Valley guard Trevor Simonds (13) fights for a rebound against Pembroke forwards Devin Riel (left) and Javien Sinclair during the second half of the Division II quarterfinal game on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald drives to the basket in the second half of the Division II quarterfinal against Merrimack Valley on Friday night.

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald drives to the basket in the second half of the Division II quarterfinal against Merrimack Valley on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald (right) battles guard Boston Bradicich during the first half of the Division II quarterfinal against Merrimack Valley on Friday night.

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald (right) battles guard Boston Bradicich during the first half of the Division II quarterfinal against Merrimack Valley on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald is called for an offensive foul as he goes over center Logan Gabour in the second half against Merrimack Valley on Friday night.

Pembroke guard Joe Fitzgerald is called for an offensive foul as he goes over center Logan Gabour in the second half against Merrimack Valley on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

 Merrimack Valley center Logan Gabour hits a runner during the first half against Merrimack Valley on Friday night.

Merrimack Valley center Logan Gabour hits a runner during the first half against Merrimack Valley on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Pembroke guard Evan Berkeley whips a pass around Merrimack Valley center Logan Gabour during the second half of the Division II quarterfinal game on Friday night.

Pembroke guard Evan Berkeley whips a pass around Merrimack Valley center Logan Gabour during the second half of the Division II quarterfinal game on Friday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 03-01-2024 11:48 PM

Modified: 03-02-2024 12:00 PM


PEMBROKE – The No. 3 Spartans (18-2) had ample reason to feel concern, trailing No. 11 Merrimack Valley (9-11), 23-22, at halftime of Friday night’s Division II boys’ basketball quarterfinal.

With the Pride having just come off an upset overtime win over No. 6 Laconia on Tuesday, there was no reason it couldn’t happen again. But then Pembroke senior Joe Fitzgerald locked into a zone, and off the Spartans went. 

He scored 11 points in the third quarter and seven more in the fourth, guiding Pembroke to a 54-47 win and securing the Spartans a berth in the semifinals.

“I thought he settled down some,” Pembroke head coach Mike Donnell said of Fitzgerald who finished the night with 26 points. “I thought in the first half he was rushing things. I thought he was rushing shots. I thought he was trying to do too much. I think in the second half, he decided that he was just going to play his game, and he got some good passes. He got off some good screens, and his shooting was very effective in the second half for us.”

In addition to Fitzgerald, the Spartans received 13 points from junior Devin Riel and 12 points from junior Evan Berkeley. It was one of Pembroke’s uglier offensive performances, but at this point in the season, whatever it takes to survive and advance is sufficient.

Donnell said he was prepared for a rock fight; his players seemed to be caught a little more by surprise.

“That is what I expected. My kids did not expect it,” he said of the slow-paced first half. “They came in very confident, and I’m always the one that’s the concerned person, and I knew Valley was going to come out and play. Tim (Mucher) had those kids worked up well. They played well. ... They’re a lot bigger than we are, and we struggled. I thought for us to only be down by one point after the first quarter was a blessing in disguise because we did not play very well.”

For MV, it was a disappointing end to a rollercoaster season. Coming off the high of the Laconia win, the Pride just couldn’t generate enough offense late to avoid a third loss to the Spartans this year. 

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Still, head coach Tim Mucher said, there was little to feel regret over.

“I’m proud of their efforts,” he said. “We got some quality, high-character kids here. They didn’t take one possession off. Very coachable. I thought our defense was very good tonight, they just hit more shots.”

The loss concludes the year for a team that Mucher said before the season was good enough to get to the championship game at UNH. But an injury to junior Aiden Gray and general inconsistency seemed to hold the Pride back from reaching its full potential.

Friday ended the careers of MV’s seniors – Logan Gabour (14 points), Trevor Simonds (11 points), Luke Dougherty (four points), Andrew Surprenant (three points), Mingso Lawati and Nate Joubert. Mucher noted that there’s no other group he would’ve wanted to go to battle with each day.

“I’ll take my team to anybody, and I wouldn’t trade them for anybody,” he said. “My team, I thought we demonstrated a lot of toughness tonight.

“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”

Across the gym, Pembroke celebrated its second straight trip to the final four and a rematch with No. 2 Hanover (18-1), a team it lost to, 53-31, back on Jan. 15.

The Bears have turned in masterclass defensive performances all season, holding opponents to an average of 30.2 points per game. 

“It’s how slow they play, but more importantly, how patient they are when they’re doing it,” Donnell said of Hanover’s defense. “I have never seen a high school team buy into a defensive scheme like Hanover has bought into (coach Ben Davis’) defense this year. It wasn’t a fluke. I thought it was a fluke, and then they did it every single game for the rest of the year. The team is totally bought in. They’re confident with what they do, and we gotta disrupt that process.”

This time, the Spartans won’t be caught off guard like they were during the regular season meeting. Hanover won just five games a year ago, so when the Bears traveled to Pembroke in mid-January, perhaps it was a bit easier for them to fly under the radar.

That won’t be the case when the two teams face off on Tuesday with a trip to the championship game hanging in the balance. 

“It’s a game the boys are looking forward to. It’s a game that I’m looking forward to,” Donnell said. “We will be prepared for them this time. We’ll play differently. I know they’re going to want to slow the ball down tremendously, and if we have to play that type of basketball, we can do that too.”