By Dan Harrison
---- — WENHAM — It doesn’t matter what division you’re talking about; when it comes to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, everybody loves an upset.
The Gordon College men’s basketball team has all the makings of a Cinderella story when it travels to Williamstown tonight to square off against second-seeded Babson (20-6) in the NCAA Division 3 first round game at Williams College (6 p.m.). It is the program’s third-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
First, the Fighting Scots have five strong seniors who’ve been playing together for quite some time. Second, Gordon has tons of momentum after finally reachings its true potential in the second half of the Commonwealth Coast Conference Championship game, rallying from a 17-point deficit with just 10 minutes left to defeat Nichols.
“I don’t know if we had that successful of a year, but we certainly had a successful end to the season,” said Gordon (17-10) head coach Tod Murphy, who went to the NCAAs in his first year at the school in 2009-10. “We’ve always been a team that tries to peak at the right time — and I think that’s what we’ve done. We’ve showed people what we’re capable of doing, especially in the last 10 minutes against Nichols.”
Park Thomas, Alex Carnes, Roy Ray, Luke Hamilton and Shaun Roach are the team’s five seniors, the first group that Murphy himself brought in to Gordon. In the four years that quintet has grown very close, so as the hole got deeper and deeper against Nichols last Saturday, the Fighting Scots were able to rely on each other to dig themselves out.
And as shocking as coming back from 17 points down in just 10 minutes is, Gordon is thinking it’s got an even bigger shock in store for Babson.
“To see everyone improve with each other has been a blessing and gave us a bond Nichols didn’t have,” explained Thomas. “Now we’re looking at (the NCAAs) as a win/win. Everyone views us as the underdog, but everyone on the team believes we can shock people. Our mindset is ‘Shock the world’.”
A large part of Gordon’s success tonight will most likely depend on junior forward Hans Miersma, who is 6-foot-9 and extremely athletic. He is second on the team in scoring (13.2 ppg.), first in rebounding (9.6 rpg.) and leads the Scots in blocks with 78. He was named the CCC Defensive Player of the Year for the second time this winter.
On the other end of the floor, Miersma gives the Gordon offense a big presence in the middle to go to on the block in big situations. It also frees up his teammates on the perimeter.
“We have one of the best big men in the Northeast,” Thomas said of Miersma. “We always want to pound it inside. We’re at our best when we’re going inside, then kicking it out to shooters.”
Defensively, a big part of Miersma’s importance is his ability to affect shots in the paint, then grab rebounds.
“Coach always tells us we have the best defensive field goal percentage in the conference. It comes down to (allowing) no layups and making them take the shots we want them to take,” said Miersma.
“(Rebounding) is definitely a mindset. It’s all about wanting the ball. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6-9” or 6-2; if you want the ball you’re going to get it.”
As if the NCAA tournament isn’t enough motivation for Gordon’s big man, consider this: in Miersma’s first-ever game in a Fighting Scots jersey, they were blown out by Babson at the Bennett Center.
Joining Miersma in the Gordon frontcourt is 6-6 junior Jason Dempsey, who really came on strong in the second half of the season.
Tonight, Gordon will be battling a Babson team that scores 74.3 points per game and shoots about 45 percent from the field. Freshman Joey Flannery is the team’s leading scorer with 19.1 points per game, but Babson also has some size with David Mack (6-6) and John Wickey (6-7). Wickey is a matchup nightmare considering he’s one of the team’s top three-point shooters, which really stretches opposing defenses.
“Babson goes about seven payers deep, but all seven are good players,” said Murphy. “They’re just a very good team with a lot of very good parts.”
One of the biggest factors could be which team suffers from big-game jitters. The NCAA tournament is a whole different animal than the conference tournaments and Murphy is well aware, considering he has experienced it before. The same can’t be said for his players, though, so the Scots are trying to remain loose and relaxed headed into tonight.
Murphy wants his guys to enjoy what will be a memorable experience win or lose, but hopes they don’t lose sight of the fact that they are there to win.
“I think you have to experience (the NCAAs) to get it,” noted Murphy. “I want them to enjoy it, but (also) realize they can do something no one in our conference has done and win. I told them to enjoy the ride ... but hopefully, enjoy it for a few extra days.”