Merrimack throws in the towel, Hoyas men’s basketball scrapes by in nail-biter win

December 1, 2023

Wayne Bristol Jr. shoots around a Merrimack defender in the game Wednesday night. Photo by Daniel Rankin

On paper, one of Georgetown men’s basketball’s (5-2, BIG EAST) most exhilarating wins of the season came on Wednesday night, as a back-and-forth, physical game came down to the last second and the Hoyas escaped with the 69-67 victory. But all those feelings evaporate, replaced with deep worry, when you consider their opponent for the night—the Merrimack Warriors (3-5, NEC)—and the way they ended up winning.

The Hoyas played down to Merrimack’s level all night, culminating in a truly disturbing final sequence off a deliberate missed free throw, in which they somehow allowed three offensive rebounds and Merrimack somehow missed three game-tying putbacks before the buzzer finally sounded. While some players showed flashes of heads-up, high-energy basketball, nothing about the team as a whole appeared ready for BIG EAST play in any encouraging way.

Notable players on the night included senior forward Ismael Massoud, who came off the bench in his Georgetown debut (following a broken hand in preseason), and sophomore guard Jayden Epps, who had two electrifying four-point plays in the first half before a bad fall took him out of the game early. Massoud’s hand seemed mostly recovered, as he hit two big threes and logged four bigger blocks on the defensive end. Epps was sorely missed in the second half, but head coach Ed Cooley said he hopes he can return before Saturday’s game versus TCU.

But the player of the game, by all accounts, was senior guard Wayne Bristol Jr., who scored a team-high 14 points, aided by eight-of-11 free throw shooting. He tacked on three blocks and saw play after play on both ends go through him down the stretch. Bristol got his second start of the season and remained as crucial as ever for the Hoyas’ energy. He also sealed the game for the Hoyas with 33 seconds to go when he drove fearlessly at Merrimack’s center and converted a circus layup to put them up by three.

He was joined in the starting lineup by Epps, Dontrez Styles, Jay Heath and Supreme Cook. After the group looked utterly flummoxed by Merrimack’s high 3-2 zone to start the game and went down 0-6 in the first two minutes, all five were subbed out at once, an unusual move by Cooley but one that succeeded in re-energizing the team. The Hoyas went on a 21-4 run over the subsequent nine minutes before cooling back off and ending the half up 34-27.

Out of the break, Georgetown gave up their lead quickly and had to claw their way back and pull narrowly ahead with six minutes to go. They did so thanks to some energetic defensive possessions, including several thunderous Massoud blocks, and quick, unselfish passing on the other end.

Merrimack’s zone successfully stymied the Hoyas’ perimeter offense, holding them to only 13 attempted threes in the game. They also succeeded in producing 18 turnovers, equal to Georgetown’s made field goal count. The Hoyas only stayed afloat because of their free throws, of which they made 28/42–both season highs. Bristol and Cook, in particular, did well to use the Warrior’s aggressive zone against them and force awkward or rushed contests to get to the line.

Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo provided fans with the highlight of the night with under two minutes to go, when he threw a towel high above his head in exasperation after his point guard got called for traveling. The referee gave him a technical foul, generating applause and jeers from an otherwise relatively quiet crowd at Capital One Arena. Though the Hoyas only converted one of the subsequent free throws, Gallo grumbled about the call unprompted at the end of his postgame press conference.

“If that was a national CBS game, Georgetown versus Merrimack, with the whole world watching, that guy ain’t making that call,” Gallo said, adding the referee declined to discuss the call with him after the game.

Following Bristol’s final minute layup, the two teams went back and forth fouling, ultimately coming down to a three-point lead for the Hoyas with six seconds to go. They sent Merrimack guard Jordan Derkack to the line, where he made the first and intentionally missed the second, with a little over four seconds on the clock.

With the arena holding their breath for a defensive rebound, the Hoyas got clobbered and shoved out of the way by the Warriors instead. Styles got an elbow to the face in the initial skirmish, and was knocked to the ground, but did not receive a whistle. Aided by that advantage, the Warriors got their rebound and put it back up.

Merrimack missed that layup. Then Georgetown failed to box out and get the defensive rebound, giving them another chance at a putback. Again, Merrimack missed it. Then again, Georgetown let them get the rebound. And finally, excruciatingly, as the buzzer sounded, Merrimack once again missed it, and it was over.

That debacle was the cherry on top of a wildly chaotic game for the Hoyas. Though they escaped with the win, and improved to a four-game win streak, the night painted a grim picture of how Saturday’s game against TCU (6-0, Big-12) will go. That game will tip off at 5:30 p.m. in Capital One and will broadcast on FS1.

Graham Krewinghaus
Graham was the editor-in-chief for the Spring 2024 semester. He cares too much about the Boston Celtics, and the proper amount about the Georgetown Voice.

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