EVANSTON, Ill. — As far as Merrimack coach Joe Gallo is concerned, there’s no substitute for experience — regardless of the level of college basketball.
That’s why Gallo believed his team had a chance on Friday night despite playing just its second game as a Division I program.
Devin Jensen had 23 points and Juvaris Hayes had 19 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, lifting Merrimack to a stunning 71-61 victory over Northwestern.
Merrimack (1-1) trailed 55-50 with 9½ minutes remaining before taking command with a 17-4 run to open a 67-59 advantage with just under a minute to go.
Hayes, a two-time Division II All-American, had nine points during the run and controlled the game.
“There’s a lot that goes into winning games at any level,” Gallo said, “and I told Juvaris, ‘This isn’t that big of a deal. I don’t care what division you were playing last year. You won more games the last three years than anyone on their roster combined — and that doesn’t happen by mistake. He’s had poise down the stretch in a lot of wins for our program and he carried that over today.”
Merrimack lost 84-64 in its opener Wednesday at Maine. The North Andover, Massachusetts, school is starting its four-year transition from Division II to Division I this season. The Warriors are in the process of joining the Northeast Conference and will play a full conference schedule this season but will not be eligible for the postseason.
Pete Nance had 19 points and 12 rebounds to lead Northwestern in its season opener.
Northwestern lost its top three scorers — Vic Law (15 points per game), Dererk Pardon (14) and Ryan Taylor (9.8) — from last season’s 13-19 team. It played three freshman and two redshirt freshmen on Friday. The two most-experienced returnees, Anthony Gaines and A.J. Turner, combined for just eight points on 3-for-9 shooting.
The Wildcats struggled to find any consistency on offense, scoring just 26 points on 10-for-30 shooting in the second half.
“It’s very disappointing, but we’re not going to quit,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. “It’s the first game of the year.”
Miller Kopp scored the game’s first eight points to get Northwestern off to a fast start, but Merrimack rallied for a 26-24 lead on a 3-pointer by Ziggy Reid with just over eight minutes left in the first half.
Jensen had 17 first-half points as Merrimack took a 36-35 halftime lead.
Northwestern was able to open a five-point lead on two occasions in the second half, but Merrimack kept rallying to pull off the landmark victory.
“It was a championship-like atmosphere in there,” Hayes said of the postgame locker room. “This is the closest thing we’re going to get to like competing in the postseason, so we’re just going to enjoy every moment of this victory.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.