Men’s Basketball: Merrimack completes historic upset over Northwestern


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Pete Nance puts up a shot. The sophomore had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the Wildcats’ season-opening loss to Merrimack on Friday.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor

Men’s Basketball

For most of its history, Northwestern has been an underdog, the David to the rest of the Big Ten. But even when you are a constant David, to someone out there, you are a Goliath.

To Merrimack — a program in its first season of Division I basketball, playing only its second game at the level — the Wildcats were more than a Goliath. NU was the alpha and the omega. And for a team nicknamed the Warriors, Merrimack wanted to prove itself as fighters.

On Friday night in Evanston, Illinois at a half-filled Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Warriors (1-1) slayed the Cats (0-1) and claimed a historic 71-61 upset.

At first, it seemed like it was going to be just your average, run-of-the-mill Power Five vs. Small School non-conference game. Sophomore forward Miller Kopp scored the first eight points of the game, and it appeared the rout was on.

Kopp scored six of his points off free throws, as he was fouled on two 3-point attempts, and hit a pull-up jumper from the baseline.

“I’m always looking to be aggressive,” Kopp said. “Sometimes I’ll get the open looks or sometimes other guys will.”

But then Merrimack’s Devin Jensen had the run of his life. The junior swingman — who averaged 1.9 points per game last season — went off for 17 points in the first half. He helped save the Warriors from an early death, and by the eight minute mark, it was a one-score game.

He hit five first half threes and his final 3-pointer of the half was a deep dagger that pushed Merrimack ahead of the Cats to have a 36-35 lead heading into the break.

“He made some shots. He made some tough ones too and some deep ones,” Kopp said. “So when a guy is doing that you have to respect him. That opened up some driving lanes for some other guys too.”

The Warriors line of defense was a 2-3 zone, which has been their defensive staple for years. Coach Chris Collins said Merrimack does a really good job extending their zone, but that leaves the middle as the vulnerable area of the court. As a result, the coaching staff emphasized the high post, which was occupied most of the night by sophomore Pete Nance.

Nance finished with a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds on 7 of 15 shooting. And while he did a good job in the high post, he also missed a lot of layups and had four turnovers.

“I could have had 80 points and if we lost, we lost,” Nance said. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t do enough to help my team win. I have to be better.”

Graduate guard Pat Spencer helped NU get off to a quick start in the second half, nailing a few smooth floaters to push the Cats to a 46-41 lead. It was one of three five-points advantages the Cats had during the quarter.

Collins highlighted the inability to capitalize on the final five-point lead — which came about halfway through the half — as a crucial moment of the game. After going up 55-50, NU was outscored 21-6 over the final nine minutes.

Juvaris Hayes led the Merrimack brigade for that stretch. The senior from New Jersey, who is a two-time DII Honorable Mention All-American, scored 13 of those 21 points while also supplying Mikey Watkins with the pass that put the Warriors up 59-57 — the final lead change of the day.

As Hayes kept inching the Warriors lead from three to five to seven and so on, he and Merrimack kept the Cats cold on the offensive end. With the Warriors up 67-61, the final dagger came when Jordan McCoy missed a free throw with 43 seconds left but grabbed the offensive rebound and took the last gasp of energy out of NU.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Collins said. “But we are in a process where we have a really young team and unfortunately we had to learn a hard lesson tonight.”

As the Warriors celebrated their triumph, their opponents contemplated their mistakes.

Collins said the energy was not good enough, and they need to continue to develop their defensive habits. Kopp said the team needed to look within and lock in more on defense. Nance emphasized throughout his post-game interview that the team did not prepare correctly for the game. When asked specifically about what went wrong, he said, “I’m not sure. It could have been a number of things.”

It’s not the first time that NU has suffered a seemingly catastrophic loss. In the 1980s, the team loss to Division II Rollins at home in back to back seasons. But this is different. The program in the 1980s was not at the same standing in the country. They weren’t in the race for five-star prospects or have yearly NCAA Tournament aspirations.

In the preseason, Collins said he views this season a reboot of the program. The initial stage of the reset failed.

“You get what you deserve,” Collins said. “We got what we deserved.”

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