Boys’ basketball: Familiar foes, Pembroke and MV prepare to do battle in the D-II quarterfinal Friday night

Merrimack Valley junior Aiden Gray dribbles through traffic during the Pride's season opener at Pembroke Academy on Tues. Dec. 12, 2023.

Merrimack Valley junior Aiden Gray dribbles through traffic during the Pride's season opener at Pembroke Academy on Tues. Dec. 12, 2023. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL—Monitor staff

Pembroke's P.J. Regnier corrals a rebound during Tuesday night's game against the Pride. MV's Logan Gabour tried to poke the ball away. Dec. 13, 2023.

Pembroke's P.J. Regnier corrals a rebound during Tuesday night's game against the Pride. MV's Logan Gabour tried to poke the ball away. Dec. 13, 2023. ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL—Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-29-2024 12:35 PM

When No. 11 Merrimack Valley (9-10) shows up to play No. 3 Pembroke Academy (17-2) on Friday night in the Division II quarterfinals, there won’t be much the two teams don’t already know about each other. They squared off twice during the regular season, with the Spartans winning both games, 57-44 and 54-45. 

But MV enters Friday off the highest of highs — an upset overtime win on the road against No. 6 Laconia (12-7) on Tuesday. Senior Trevor Simonds sank the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Pride home with a 60-57 victory.

“Boy we showed some grit and some toughness,” MV head coach Tim Mucher said of Tuesday night. “Just to keep pushing forward, I know the kids didn’t want to lose.”

Last year, the Pride fell to No. 1 Laconia, 61-57, in the quarterfinals. Mucher’s group didn’t forget that bitter feeling. 

Tuesday’s result was far from a sure thing. MV played inconsistently all season, starting 1-3, then winning three in a row, before not stringing together consecutive wins again for the rest of the regular season.

The return of junior Aiden Gray, who’d missed about two months with a broken foot, made a major difference against Laconia, Mucher said.

“When you have a player like Aiden Gray who has a motor, he really gave us a spark off the bench (Tuesday) night,” he said. “When he went down with a broken foot, everybody’s role really changed.”

Mucher also noted senior Luke Dougherty who drew three charges and knocked down clutch free throws and Simonds who hit the game winner.

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It’ll require a similar performance – with multiple players stepping up to make big plays – to pull off an even bigger upset of the Spartans who come in off a 62-49 victory over No. 14 Oyster River.

Pembroke had four players reach double figures in scoring in that game, with Joe Fitzgerald scoring 19, Evan Berkeley with 13, Zach Al-Shawafi with 12 and Devin Riel with 10. 

“It’s going to be one of those tough games where we’re going to have to do a lot right,” Mucher said.

Pembroke head coach Mike Donnell’s also weary, fully aware of how hard it is to beat the same team three times in a season. Still, he’s hopeful they shook out their playoff nerves on Tuesday and will be full throttle on Friday night.

“I always say the first game’s the toughest game and usually where you see the upsets,” he said. “Nerves, jitters, all those things come into play. We started out a little bit rough with some turnovers; we were rushing things. But I saw some really good things from our team. … We ended up slowing the pace down a little bit, more toward our game, making smarter decisions, and we come out with what I like to say is a well-earned win.”

Friday’s game will feature two teams with quite different styles of play. Pembroke likes to play fast, get out in transition and knock down 3-pointers; MV relies more on playing ultra-disciplined basketball and knocking down timely shots.

The Spartans have scored 60 points or more in 13 of their 19 games this season; the Pride has done so in just six of its 19 contests. Entering Friday, Donnell said he’s focused on making sure his players don’t just rush into shots, but rather move the ball around to find the best ones. He knows MV will likely have some wrinkles for them as they see each other for the third time.

“Mucher is a real good coach,” Donnell said. “I’m expecting to see some things from him that we haven’t seen, so we’ve gotta prepare for everything. I think it’s going to be a dog fight.”

But at the end of the day, how the win comes doesn’t matter. Whatever it takes to move onto the semifinals will be good enough.

“We’re just looking to survive and advance,” Mucher said. “This time of year, anything can happen.”