Photo: Gaston High’s Mica Merriman (right) drives past Lanett’s Nakia Bynum during the Bulldogs’ 59-48 victory in the Class 2A subregional boys basketball playoffs on Saturday, Feb. 10. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The Gaston High boys basketball team recently checked another item off its punch list for the 2023-24 season.
Hosting their first subregional playoff game in several years on Saturday, Feb. 10, the Bulldogs (23-6) rode a strong performance from junior guard Mica Merriman on the way to a 59-48 victory and a berth in the Northeast Regional Tournament. Gaston will face North Sand Mountain in the regional semifinals on Friday, Feb. 16 at 4:30 p.m. at Jacksonville State.
The Bulldogs last made it to JSU in 2011. It is the program’s fifth appearance in the regional tournament.
Merriman scored 16 of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter when the game hung in the balance. With Gaston leading by seven points with 3:15 remaining and the Bulldogs draining the clock with quick passes, the Panthers were forced to foul in order to regain possession.
Six of those fouls occurred when Merriman was in possession of the ball, and Lanett paid a steep price when Merriman knocked down 12 of 14 free throws to over the final few minutes to help keep the Panthers at bay. Overall in the fourth quarter, Gaston made 73 percent (16 of 22) of its foul shots.
“That’s a testament to the all the work we put in at practice,” said Merriman, who also had eight assists, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks. “Before every game I shoot 100 free throws, so I want the ball in those situations. That’s always my mindset, that I can always knock them down.”
Gaston head coach Michael Merriman was proud of his players for keeping their composure when Lanett applied the pressure during the game’s final minutes. The Panthers did not score from the field for a seven-minute stretch spanning the third and forth quarters.
“We were able to get some things going with our defense, and our guys settled in right there and got some confidence and made some big shots. Mica has been in so many of these types of games, and we know that Mica’s reliable when the ball’s in his hands. He didn’t shoot the ball very well tonight, but great players find ways to help their team when they’re struggling to do the things they normally do, and Mica played great defense tonight and rebounded the ball and made his free throws.”
A 5-0 spurt midway through the fourth quarter brought Lanett within 43-36, but the Panthers would get no closer as the Bulldogs worked the clock and got the job done at the charity stripe to secure the win.
“Our defense kept [Lanett] from scoring, and that came from guys like Kodie Bogle and Devon Green and Peyton Morrison and Trustin Granger and Nate Oliver and Jacob Williams doing their jobs on the back end,” said Michael Merriman.
Devon Green held the fort early on for Gaston, as the 6’5” junior center scored the first seven points of the game for the Bulldogs as Lanett took a 12-10 lead after eight minutes. In a low-scoring second period, a pair of three-point baskets from Adonis Jones helped Gaston draw within 18-16 at halftime.
Merriman’s steal and lay-up at 5:31 of the third quarter regained the advantage for the Bulldogs, while Peyton Morrison’s trey a few minutes late provided Gaston the lead for good.
Jones scored seven points early in the fourth quarter to help extend the advantage to double digits.
“Lanett’s a fantastic team,” said Michael Merriman. “Coach (Trentavious) McCants always puts his players in a position to be successful, and for me, that’s a mark of a great coach. They’ve got a championship pedigree, and we knew tonight was going to be a great challenge.”
Jones finished with 15 points along with two steals.
“Adonis made big-time shots after big-time shots for us tonight,” said Michael Merriman. “That kid has worked so hard over the offseason to better his shots and better his game. He’s also an unbelievable defender, and I’m so proud of him.”
Green contributed 10 points, nine rebounds and six blocks. Morrison and Kodie Bogle each added six points, while Jacob Williams chipped in three.
Nakia Bynum paced the Panthers with 12 points, followed by Fred Broughton with 10 and Jeramiah McGilberry with nine.
“[Going to JSU] is something that I didn’t get to do when I was a player here,” said Michael Merriman, a 2001 Gaston High graduate. “We were one game away, and as a coach, I’m extremely proud of our guys, because they’ve really earned this trip. If you’re going to play on this team, you’re going to be expected to know how to win games. We’re not going out there hoping to win; we’ve got the mentality of expecting to do our jobs and win basketball games.”