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Life lesson in loss for Saint Francis

Commentary

LORETTO — Connecting the dots on an important life lesson, Rob Krimmel delivered a poignant, appropriate and timely message that certainly carried a lot of weight on the day our country celebrates the life of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Saint Francis lost a key basketball game Monday evening in a battle for first place in the Northeast Conference. Merrimack, in its first year competing at the Division I level, continued its remarkably surprising surge with a 72-55 victory at DeGol Arena.

Merrimack played well and deserves credit for the victory.

But it wasn’t a huge surprise given that the Red Flash were playing severely short-handed, missing two key players, including the conference’s leading scorer, Isaiah Blackmon.

The reason they were playing short-handed served as the impetus for Krimmel’s discussion after the game, which focused on Dr. King.

“He was in jail over 20 times,” Krimmel said of the civil rights icon. “His house was bombed, he was stabbed, his family was threatened, all for something he believed in.

“Each time he responded in non-violent ways.”

Krimmel said he talked with the Flash players about the importance of all of that and how to respond when facing adversity.

“In light of what happened the other night — certainly something that we don’t condone and we don’t want to be part of ever again — we talked to these guys about their response,” Krimmel said. “We talked about those people like Martin Luther King as leaders.

“You have a choice, and those choices and how you respond when things don’t go your way (make the difference).”

Saturday night, following SFU’s 72-65 win over Sacred Heart, a member of the Pioneers team took a cheap shot at Blackmon in the handshake line. Koreem Ozier stuck out his hand and shoved Blackmon in the face.

Another member of the Pioneers then threw a haymaker punch, which would have done a lot of damage had it landed, but fortunately it did not.

Sacred Heart started the whole thing. Without question.

And the Saint Francis players handled themselves about as well as could be expected in the following seconds as chaos ensued.

Everything was pretty much over, and for a couple of seconds, calm seem to be restored.

But that’s when Blackmon made the decision to re-engage, charging after some Sacred Heart players on the court. At that point, Saint Francis’ Tyler Stewart also got involved again and threw a punch that didn’t connect.

Those actions by Blackmon and Stewart — after it appeared that the situation had been resolved — are what Krimmel was talking about Monday with regards to how the response to adversity is so important.

Blackmon (17.4 average) and the sixth-man Stewart (10.1) both were suspended for Monday’s game by the Northeast Conference, costing SFU a collective 27.5 points per game. So their actions at the end of the scuffle wound up costing them and their team in a major way.

The Flash (12-6, 5-2 NEC) would have had a tough time beating a good Merrimack (12-8, 6-1) team even with Blackmon and Stewart playing. Without those two, the Warriors came into DeGol Arena and dominated Saint Francis over the final 25 minutes to win a blowout.

Merrimack trailed 32-24 late in the first half, then used a 20-2 run sandwiched around halftime to seize control and stun the SFU crowd. The Warriors scored the first 10 points of the second half for a 44-34 lead.

The Flash just didn’t have enough answers playing without two of their best players.

“These guys, when they put on the uniform as 18- to 22-year-old young men, our job is to create great basketball players. But more importantly, we want to create great men,” Krimmel said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tough situation, sometimes it takes a mistake, sometimes it takes something that doesn’t go our way.”

Krimmel said both players will be back for SFU’s next game and that the situation is now in the past. He then was asked if he agreed with the two being suspended for a game.

“When you insert yourself into those situations and the way things transpired at the end of that game, you leave your fate in the hands of other people,” Krimmel said. “That’s why it’s so important to control your emotions in those particular games.”

Merrimack picked up a second very impressive victory in three days, this one on the heels of a win Saturday at Robert Morris, which came into that game undefeated in the league.

Not many teams can come to western PA and pull off the RMU-SFU sweep. The fact that a team that just moved up from the Division II level this season did so is nothing short of amazing.

Merrimack coach Joe Gallo used to be an assistant coach at Robert Morris, so he understands just how impressive it was what his team accomplished the past three days.

“That’s what I just told those guys,” Gallo said. “The great thing about them is they had no idea how hard it is.”

Not knowing may have helped the Warriors be able to pull off the feat.

“I think so,” Gallo said. “They don’t really care. They don’t really get into the standings or where we’re playing or who’s next.”

Merrimack plays a pesky 2-3 zone and an overall style that Krimmel compared to that of former NEC member Monmouth. Coach Dave Calloway used that style to enjoy a lot of success at Monmouth, and Merrimack is enjoying success with it as a new Division I school.

The Warriors also have some outstanding players who are used to success after numerous appearances in the Division II NCAA Tournament, so they are accustomed to winning.

“Very impressed just to be able to come here and go 2-0 (in western PA), got to tip your hat off to them,” SFU’s Keith Braxton said.

Braxton and Randall Gaskins Jr. led the Flash with 12 points apiece. Idris Joyner, who came in averaging 8.6 points, scored a season-high 28 for Merrimack.

Note: The NEC did not release how long the players involved in Saturday’s scuffle would be suspended. A source told the Mirror that Sacred Heart’s Ozier was expected to be suspended for 2-3 games, while the undisclosed player who threw a punch might get up to six games.

MERRIMACK (12-8): Hayes 2-5 2-2 6, Lord 5-11 0-0 13, Joyner 11-12 4-4 28, Watkins 4-6 2-2 10, Jensen 2-6 0-0 6, Reid 2-3 3-4 9, Derring 0-2 0-0 0, Minor 0-1 0-0 0, McKoy 0-0 0-0 0, Crawford 0-0 0-0 0, Miller 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 11-12 72.

ST. FRANCIS (12-6); Gaskins 4-6 4-4 12, Braxton 6-9 0-0 12, Laskey 4-10 0-0 10, Dixon-Conover 0-2 0-0 0, Thompson 4-8 3-5 11, Meredith 2-7 0-0 4, Flagg 2-4 0-0 4, Kuzavas 1-1 0-0 2, Ikediashi 0-1 0-0 0, Burch 0-0 0-0 0, Henry 0-1 0-0 0, Labriolo 0-0 0-0 0, Seidel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 7-9 55.

Halftime–34-34. 3-Point Goals–Merrimack 9-19 (Lord 3-6, Joyner 2-2, Reid 2-3, Jensen 2-6, Derring 0-2), St. Francis 2-12 (Laskey 2-5, Dixon-Conover 0-1, Gaskins 0-1, Meredith 0-5). Rebounds–Merrimack 22 (Lord 7), St. Francis 21 (Thompson 6). Assists–Merrimack 17 (Hayes 9), St. Francis 12 (Dixon-Conover 3). Total Fouls–Merrimack 14, St. Francis 12. A–1,080 (3,500).

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