West Windsor, N.J. – Back in December, the Vikings lost three close games to three good teams. And that was the last time they tasted defeat until Feb. 28, when they fell to Essex CC in the Region 19 final. Ranked as high as 15th nationally, they ended the season with a stellar 23-4 record.
Head Coach Howard Levy says that this was the best team he has coached in his seven years at Mercer – not the best result, but the best team.
“We had a nucleus of four very good players and everybody else had their role and chipped in. It was really amazing,” Levy said. “I would get comments from other coaches about how hard Mercer played and how unselfishly we played. And those are the things I care about most – hard work and unselfish play.”
One essential was that every player returned after winter break. “We had everyone at our first practice. We were able to pick up where we left off and we kept improving,” Levy said.
Four sophomores set the stage: Dashante Alexander, Mustafa El-Amin, David Johnson and Tyliek Kimbrough. (El-Amin and Kimbrough returned to the team after sitting out last year; they were both on the 2013 squad that went to the Region 19 final.) The nucleus from the past two years comprised this year’s team, along with freshman Daquan Hargrove.
The Vikings did not have height. At 6’5, Hargrove was the tallest starter; every other starter was 6’ or shorter. But that didn’t bother Levy. “As my father used to say, you can’t teach height. More often than not, we have been small compared to our opponents. So we know what to do if teams are going to try to take advantage of their height. This year we created potential problems for our opponents because they had a hard time defending us with almost any kind of defense they played.”
Tough wins against Community College of Rhode Island and Genesee Community College in January showed the Vikings could go the distance. “When we go outside the region, it’s always a test,” Levy said. “We won both games convincingly, including Genesee, which had had only one loss to that point.”
Another game that proved just how good Mercer was came against Division I Harcum College, as the Vikings beat Harcum 65-64 on the road. (Harcum was ranked in Division I's top ten.)
Levy recalls a plateau late in the season after the Vikings upset Essex at Essex. “But we still managed to win those last few games. We kept working hard in practice and got back on track.”
In the semifinal against Lackawanna on Feb. 26, Levy prepared his team for a tough fight. Mercer had beaten Lackawanna during their regular season match-up, but the games were close. “They play closer to the way we play, they move the ball well, and they work hard on defense," Levy observed. "But our guys came through in the second half. They hung in there and kept playing hard.” Missing one of their starters made the accomplishment even more impressive.
Going into the final, Mercer knew it would have its hands full. Essex and Mercer had met twice during the regular season, with Mercer losing in December and winning in February. But this time the Vikings were short two starters.
“The final was a heartbreaking loss,” Levy said. “We asked a lot of the guys off the bench who were used to playing far fewer minutes. We had the right game plan and we executed it perfectly in the first half and were up by four points at the half. But then we ran out of steam.”