Gaston thins out Herd, heads to regional finals

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Photo: Gaston High’s Kodie Bogle (right) attempts a shot as North Sand Mountain’s Brody Helton defends during the Bulldogs’ 67-59 victory in the Class 2A Northeast Regional Tournament boys basketball semifinals on Friday, Feb. 16 at Jacksonville State. (Courtesy of Alex Chaney)

By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor

Gaston High boys basketball head coach Michael Merriman favors the sink-or-swim method of motivation.
With his Bulldogs trailing North Sand Mountain by 13 points midway through the second quarter of the Class 2A Northeast Regional Tournament semifinals on Friday, Feb. 16 at Jacksonville State, Merriman declined to call a timeout to deliver a quick pep talk.
His players responded to that unspoken challenge and gradually dug themselves out of the double-digit deficit, closing out the first half with an 8-2 run and getting back within 29-22 at halftime.
“Most people will use a time-out in that situation, but I’ve never done that throughout my career,” said Merriman. “I want my guys to fight through it and not look for me to bail them out. In that spot, it’s time to man up, do your job and battle back. And that’s what they did.”
The Bulldogs outscored the Bison 22 to 16 during the third quarter to tie at the game at 44-44, and Gaston took control during the final eight minutes on the way to a 67-59 victory and the program’s first appearance in the regional finals since 2005.
The Bulldogs will face Lafayette in the regional championship on Wednesday, April 21 at 2:15 p.m.
“North Sand Mountain put pressure on us in a lot of different spots, and I thought our guys handled those situations really well,” said Merriman. “North Sand Mountain played very well in the first half, but I was confident in our guys, because we were doing a lot of good things.”
Mica Merriman paced Gaston with 27 points, including a 90 percent (9-for-10) effort from the free throw line. He also distributed six assists.
“When I’m going nuts, Mica is a calming presence on the floor,” said Michael Merriman. “That helped the other guys step up when they need to.”
Kodie Bogle was a force under the basket with 16 points, including nine in fourth quarter when the outcome was still in question. His two baskets in a 30-second span in the final minute pushed the Gaston lead from five points to eight at 65-57. Merriman’s two foul shots with eight seconds remaining effectively sealed the victory.
“Kodie is our rebounder and defender, and when you forget about him, he’ll destroy you,” said Michael Merriman. “Adonis [Jones] and Peyton [Morrison] also made some huge shots, and Nate Oliver did a super job for us.”
With starting center Devon Green on the bench with foul trouble, Gaston opened the second half starting at a seven-point deficit. A pair of three-point baskets from Morrison helped put the Bulldogs in gear, however, and Gaston gradually narrowed the gap. Respective baskets from Merriman and Bogle provided Gaston with its first lead of the game, while Bogle’s free throw with less than a second left forced a 44-44 tie after three quarters.
“At halftime we talked about having to do a better job of guarding the three-point line and rebounding better,” said Michael Merriman. “We also started switching [on defense] in the second half, which we don’t do a whole lot of. We were able to get downhill at the end and dish off, and that’s our game. These guys are unselfish and share the basketball, and when you do that, you’re hard to guard, especially when you’re getting buckets off assists.”
Green’s basket 20 seconds into the fourth period gave the Bulldogs the lead for good, and Jones’ three-pointer on the next possession led to a time-out by North Sand Mountain. A three-pointer by Blake Maples pulled the Thundering Herd within 52-50 at the 4:33 mark, but NSM would get no closer. Jones knocked down a trey a few moments later to make it a five-point advantage, and with a little over a minute remaining, Merriman’s jump shot pushed the lead to six points. The Bison failed to come up with a stop on defense, and Brody Helton’s basket at the buzzer only allowed NSM to end the game within single digits.
Morrison and Green both scored eight points for Gaston, with Morrison grabbing six rebounds. Helton led North Sand Mountain with 16 points, followed by Maples with 15 and Jack Johnson with 10.
“This is a testament to how much these kids work,” said Michael Merriman. “I’m a hard coach to play for, and these guys are tough because of that. These kids stepped up because they wanted to do it for their team. A lot of kids run and hide in those moments, but our guys don’t hide.”
A 2001 Gaston High graduate, Merriman appreciated the large turnout at the regional from the school and community.
“Our community has really started to show up, and as a Gaston alumnus, I’m very proud of that,” he said. “I know these people, and it’s special to me because it’s my alma mater.”

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