By Jean DePlacido
---- — SALEM — The lead the Salem State men’s basketball team held for most of last night’s game may have seemed comfortable, but everything has been too close for comfort for the Vikings lately.
It’s always a big game when local rivals Endicott College and Salem State meet on the hardwood, and both gave it everything they had in the feature game of the Salem State Holiday Classic last night. Salem State seemed to have control for the majority of the game, but Endicott roared back in the last five minutes to hand the Vikings their first loss on their home court, 84-80.
It’s becoming all too familiar a pattern, the failure to hang onto double-digit halftime leads and it has Salem coach Chris Harvey concerned. His team was up by 11 at intermission, but was outscored 50-35 in the second half.
“This is the third straight game where we’ve had a double-digit halftime lead only to lose it in the second half. We beat Bates (Sunday night) on a buzzer beater, and the game before that Southern Maine came back to make it close at the end,” Harvey said.
“We’ve got to get better possessions when we need them. It was a good game, and the kids were making plays, but you can’t give up 50 points in the second half in college basketball because if you do you are going to lose a lot of games.”
The Vikings took the early lead on a strength of six 3-pointers. Junior guard Jon Perez, who was named MVP for his team, hit four while Bryan Ortiz had a pair in the first 20 minutes. Perez and Ortiz led Salem with 22 points apiece including four treys. Hamed Akanni was also in double figures with a dozen. Akanni and Andrew White each had eight rebounds.
Nick Grassa was held to four points, but chipped in with three assists and a steal. The Gulls defended Grassa well, and did a better job on defense the second half.
“We had a nice comeback once our guys relaxed and played our game instead of worrying about every basket,” said Endicott coach Phil Rowe, his team now 7-2. “We guarded them much better in the second half. This is a nice local rivalry, and Chris Harvey is a good friend.
“We have some really good guys locally. Chris, Gordon’s Tod Murphy, and I get along great. We always hope the others do well as long as we’re not playing them.”
Andre Makris was chosen MVP for Endicott. The 6-foot-9 forward led all scorers with 26 points. He also had eight rebounds, two blocked shots, and a steal. Kamahl Walker (16) and John Henault (10) were also in double digits. Makris and Walker had some key baskets to give their team the lead.
“Makris had an excellent inside game,” said Harvey, whose team is now 7-5. “I thought we defended him fairly well down low, but he still made some nice baskets.”
The Gulls went on an 8-0 run to cut Salem State’s lead to three points, 56-53, with 11 minutes left. They took the lead on a basket by Makris, and John Henault followed with an old-fashioned three-point play to stretch it to 78-74 with just under a minute remaining. The Vikings were forced to foul at the end, but did close the deficit to 82-80 on a bomb by Ortiz.
“This is huge for us,” said Makris. “We knew coming in that Salem State was a good team. We got behind early, but went man-to-man in the second half to get on their shooters. We executed together, and this is a good team win.”
Harvey said Ortiz (from Salem) is banged up a bit but fought through it. He singled out Perez for giving the team a spark with 18 points in the first half.
“Grassa didn’t get many clean looks, but he’ll be back tomorrow ready to go,” said Harvey. “He’s a tough kid, and will do anything he can to help the team. It’s an added benefit for us when Perez hits his shots. Our strength of schedule has been very good, and hopefully that will carry over into the MASCAC games coming up.”