MANCHESTER — Manchester Central established itself as the team to beat in Division I boys' basketball by fending off Merrimack, 62-59, Monday night at Simon Gym.
Central and Merrimack entered the game as the only unbeaten teams in Division I, but Central overcame a slow start to improve its Division I record to 9-0.
Merrimack trailed by as many as 13 in the final quarter, but cut its deficit to one on an Austin Franzen 3-pointer with 43 seconds to play. After Central's Jon Martin made two free throws, Merrimack received a basket from Dylan Richardson before Central capped the scoring with a Jon Martin layup at the buzzer.
"I thought our guys did a tremendous job of getting back in the game," Merrimack coach Tim Goodridge said. "We had kids that didn't want to quit. These kids kept playing. That's what high school sports is all about."
Franzen led Merrimack with 17. Merrimack's Eric Gendron, the New Hampshire Basketball Coaches' Association Player of the Year last season, tossed in 14 before he fouled out with 4:19 left, and Shayne Bourque finished with 10.
"I thought Merrimack did a great job of flipping the momentum when Gendron fouled out," Central coach Doc Wheeler said. "They were very aggressive without their leader. I think you have to give Merrimack a lot of credit. They hit some difficult shots and played great defense.
"If we don't execute better down the stretch at UNH (the site of the state semifinals and finals), where there's 2,000 people, we could lose a game like this. As I told the kids, we didn't start well and we didn't finish well."
Central's Brett Hanson led all scorers with 21, 10 of which came in the second quarter. The Little Green received 17 from Joey Martin and 15 from Jon Martin.
The loss dropped Merrimack's record to 7-1.
"We did a pretty good job defensively in the first half, but in the second half it seemed like when they needed a basket they got a basket," Goodridge said. "Their execution is what impressed me most."
Merrimack led 15-7 after one quarter, but the Little Green outscored the Tomahawks 21-10 in the second and carried a 28-25 lead into halftime. Joey Martin did all the Central scoring in the first eight minutes. It was 47-40 Central entering the fourth.
Central held a 53-40 lead on two Mike Plentzas free throws with 5:41 left, but Merrimack began to chip away at the lead shortly thereafter. The Tomahawks were within one point twice in the final minute, but couldn't produce the go-ahead basket.
It was the first of six consecutive home games for Central. That stretch includes a makeup game against Concord.
"That's the type of game we're going to see up at UNH and if we're not mature about handling our success it could cost us when we want it most," Wheeler said. "Hopefully we learned what we didn't do right and we'll do it right the next time."