COLCHESTER, Vt. - The regionally-ranked Saint Michael's College men's basketball team whittled away at a 15-point deficit before falling in its regular-season finale to Merrimack College, 84-78, on Tuesday evening in the Ross Sports Center. The Purple Knights, who were sixth in the latest NCAA East Region poll, are 16-10 overall and 12-9 in the Northeast-10 Conference, while the Warriors are 15-11 and 10-11.
With the setback, Saint Michael's slides into the No. 4 seed in the NE-10 Northeast Division and will host The College of Saint Rose on Friday in an NE-10 Championship first-round game at 7 p.m. The Golden Knights are the No. 5 seed in the Southwest Division. The match-up will mark the Purple Knights' first postseason home game since February 2007, and just the second since 2001. Merrimack took the Northeast's fifth seed with the win and action around the league.
Senior Mike Holton Jr. (Portland, Ore./The Winchendon School) scored 19 points in 20 minutes, with every point coming within the 12 minutes he played in the second half, while classmate Corey Crawford II (Dover, Del./The Phelps School) had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists. Sophomore Matt Bonds (Accokeek, Md./North Point) turned in 13 points and 10 rebounds, and senior Dom Ditlefsen (Portland, Ore./Sunset) had 11 points and five boards. Classmate James Cambronne (De Bary, Fla./Winchendon School) added eight points and six caroms.
Holton passed Mark Mulvey '97 (1,700) to claim sixth in program history in scoring (1,705), becoming the first Purple Knight to reach the 1,700-point plateau since Todd Roberts '01 on Feb. 17, 2001, and just the third in the last 27 years. Cambronne (1,208) moved into 23rd in points, and Crawford (1,196) improved to 25th. During the evening, Ditlefsen played 37 minutes while guarding the NE-10's leading scorer, junior Gelvis Solano (New York, N.Y./Health Professions), who entered the day averaging 23.1 points while making 8.0 shots and attempting 17.9. Ditlefsen limited Solano to 12 points on 3-of-8 shooting, including two points on 1-of-6 shooting until 5:17 remained in the contest.
Junior JT Strickland (Laurel, Md./Georgetown Prep) netted 33 points on 7-of-11 three-point shooting to lead Merrimack, adding six rebounds, and classmate Troy Hammel (Valencia, Calif./Valencia) had 28 points behind 9-of-9 free throw shooting. Solano turned in his 12 points in addition to eight rebounds, five assists and four steals, while junior James Kennedy (Dorchester, Mass./Cushing Academy/Boston University) pulled down 13 boards.
After Solano hit his second three in 44 seconds to put Merrimack up 69-54 with 4:33 remaining, the Purple Knights chipped their deficit down to single digits, creeping within two possessions late. Six straight points, on two freebies apiece by Bonds and Crawford and a lay-in by Cambronne, drew the hosts within 60-69 at 3:49, but the Warriors scored the next four points. Five points by Holton sparked a 6-1 run in a matter of 50 seconds that made it 74-66 with 1:55 remaining, and five free throws by Holton in another 29-tick stretch had the score 78-71 at 57.6 seconds.
Hammel responded with two free throws of his own before Crawford buried a triple at 26.8 seconds to bring it to 80-74, and a five-second count on the ensuing inbounds play gave the hosts a chance to cut the hole even further. However, a Purple Knight missed an ensuing three-point try, and the Warriors went 4-of-4 on free throws in the final 21 seconds, with Crawford buckets twice producing a six-point margin.
Saint Michael's shot 45.5 percent in the second half while committing just four turnovers and holding Merrimack to 38.5 percent shooting, but the Warriors went 23-of-27 on free throws to the Purple Knights' 15-for-23 showing. The hosts turned in a 31.0 percent performance from the field in the opening half, while Merrimack shot 10-for-21 (47.6%) from three-point range, attempting only nine two-point baskets while making four.
Strickland hit three threes in a 2:04 span to help his team jump out to an 11-0 lead by the 16:11 mark of the opening stanza, but a 13-2 counter by the Purple and Gold knotted the contest by 11:31. Bonds had six points in that stretch, while junior Morrell Gaskins (Cambria Heights, N.Y./Archbishop Molloy) provided the tying tip-in. Merrimack went back in front on Kennedy's tip-in at 10:43 to spark his team to eventually extending its advantage back to eight, but Saint Michael's was within 27-22 when junior Greg Grippo (Edison, N.J./Rutgers Prep) hit a trey at 4:44. Hammel hit a pair of shots from long range during an ensuing 11-2 run, as the hosts made only two free throws in that time. Crawford's off-balance three at the buzzer cut the hosts' advantage to 38-27 at halftime.
Merrimack's lead grew to 14 when Hammel knocked down three free throws at 17:30 of the second half, but Holton brought his squad within 50-42 after connecting on a three and converting a three-point play within a 34-second stretch. However, Strickland added three freebies at 10:01 to make it 55-43 and give the Warriors a double-digit advantage, one they held until the Purple Knights rallied in the final four minutes.