WOBURN — With the clock ticking down to its final seconds, Andover’s Connor Merinder had no time consider the moment.
With the game on the line, he had to act.
“You can’t think,” said the center. “You just have to rely on your instincts. You have to be aggressive. Once I got the ball, I was never going to let it go for anything.”
With 13 seconds left in the game and Andover leading by one point, Everett’s Timmance McKinney drove to the basket. But Merinder was there to pressure him into a miss close to the basket.
A Crimson Tide player grabbed the rebound, but Merinder was there tear the ball out of his hands and held it tight as the clock ran out and Andover clinched a thrilling 49-48 victory over Everett in the Division 1 North semifinals last night.
“I knew Connor would be there,” said star guard David Giribaldi, who had 12 points. “Connor always has my back on defense. He rules the paint and he is a rebounding machine. Then it was just relief. I have been waiting since the fourth grade to make it this far.”
With the victory, the Golden Warriors advanced to the Division 1 North finals for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, once again facing off against archrival Central Catholic on Saturday at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
“This is everything we have world for and everything we have wished for,” said Merinder. “It is so amazing that we will have a chance to play in the North final. This is the first Andover team to do it in a long time, and that means a lot. But we are going to keep battling. This isn’t going to our heads.”
In the most important game of his career, Merinder was dominant. The 6-foot-5 bigman scored a team-high 16 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked a whopping seven shots.
“This guy is the Bill Russell of the MVC,” said Fazio after the game, with his arm around Merinder. “He was a monster. He was close to a triple-double. He played an amazing game.”
Tied 12-12 after a quarter, Andover began to grab momentum with an 11-1 run to take a 27-20 lead into halftime. The Warriors continued to surge to start the third as E.J. Perry IV, Merinder and John Pisacreta all knocked down shots to make the advantage 33-20 midway through the third.
But back came Everett. Trailing 41-32 after three quarters, the Crimson Tide’s aggressive defense began to force Andover into mistakes that led to points the other way, and with just over two minutes left in the game the Tide had cut the Warrior advantage to 44-42.
That was when Perry, who had just come back into the game after a brief trip to the bench, stepped up with a crucial 3-pointer from the elbow.
“I knew I had to redeem myself,” said the freshman. “I knew we were in some group and I had to make something happen. I got back in there, so an open shot and hit the 3-pointer.”
But Everett was able to respond with a pair of buckets, and after Merinder sunk a layup to make the Andover lead 49-46, the Crimson Tide broke free for another hoop to make it a one-point game again.
After a missed free throw, Everett rebounded the ball with 13 seconds left and attacked, but Merinder was there to force the miss and grab the final rebound.
“There was a lot of panic in the final play,” said point guard John Pisacreta. “Everyone was all over the place. You just keep going. Then it was a lot of relief. Now we have our chance. Connor was just great, E.J. and Giri came up with some big shots. It is just so exciting.”
This marks the third time since 1972 that the Golden Warriors have advanced to the North Finals, going in 2000, 1981 and 1972.
“We were Warriors tonight,” said Perry IV, who scored 13 points. “We showed that we are going to fight and find a way to win. This is one step to our real goal of winning a state title. WE have to go out and get the job done against Central. We are going to be facing an amazing squad.”
For the Warriors, who are 2-1 against the Raiders this season, they wouldn’t pick another opponent.
“It’s very appropriate,” said Giribaldi. “This is the team we wanted. I knew I saw it coming. We are exciting and I believe we can win.”
Andover 49, Everett 48
Division 1 North Semifinals
Everett (48): A.J. Ramos 2 0-0 4, Timmance McKinney 6 1-1 13, Gary Clark 3 1-3 7, Lubern Figaro 3 2-2 8, Marquis Holman 3 0-0 7, Rodwell Blanc 4 1-2 9. Totals 21 5-8 48
Andover (49): Connor Merinder 8 0-0 16, John Pisacreta 3 0-0 7, E.J. Perry IV 5 2-2 13, David Giribaldi 6 0-0 12, Jeffrey Dreyfus 0 1-2 1, Ben Brown 0 0-0 0, Ryan O’Connell 0 0-0 0. Totals 22 3-4 49
3-pointers: A — Perry IV, Pisacreta, E — Holman
Everett (18-5): 12 8 12 16 — 48
Andover (19-4): 12 15 14 8 — 49