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Vikings Play ‘Harder and Smarter’ in Thrilling Season


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.”

With Coach Levy in the gym lobby prior to heading to their final regular season game at Valley Forge Military College are, front row, from left, Ezren Bell, Kenyatta Long, Kevin Alexis, David Johnson and Tyliek Kimbrough; back row, from left, Mustafa El-Amin, Dashante Alexander, Dean Blank, Daquan Hargrove, Salam Simon (Stats/Manager) and Petar Milivojevic.

David Johnson (no. 15) was named Region 19's Player of the Year and Tyliek Kimbrough (no. 20) was named to the All-Region Second Team. Both players were named to the All-GSAC First Team.
Dashante Alexander was named to All-GSAC Second Team.
This year's squad was all about hard work and unselfish play.

Levy adds that he has great respect for the Essex squad and its coach.  “I really feel that this year both Mercer and Essex deserved to go to the national tournament.  Both teams were clearly two of the top 16 teams in the country.”

Levy notes that one of the keys to the Vikings' success this season was their work ethic. “In every game, there are a lot of possessions. We emphasize that players need to play every single one because you don’t know which one will impact the result of the game.”  He admits to being a tough coach, but says his message is simple, especially with this talented squad: play harder and smarter.  And they did.

“We’re never playing against the other team; we’re playing against how good we can be,” Levy observes, adding that his biggest challenge as a coach is when a player does something he thinks is good – it works in practice and it works in a game.  “But if your buddy over there is more open than you are, you should pass it to him. When we develop the mentality to be the best we can be and not just beat the team that’s in front of us, we’re going to go pretty far.”

Practice is a huge commitment – at a community college as much as at other levels.  The team and the coaching staff put in many hours – three per day, six days a week starting at the beginning of October.  “It’s challenging, but incredibly rewarding,” Levy said, noting his appreciation for his assistant coaches Jordan Ingram and Stanley Tuchez.

Several Vikings players were singled out for post-season honors. David Johnson was named the Region 19 Player of the Year. Tyliek Kimbrough was named to the All-Region Second Team. Three players earned All Garden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) honors: Johnson and Kimbrough were named to the All-GSAC First Team and Dashante Alexander was named to All-GSAC Second Team.

For Levy and his team, the season ended way too soon.  “I’m sorry it’s over. But these guys are not done as basketball players or as students.  Just as at a four-year college, we will keep them conditioning and training together.”

While Levy enjoys winning, he is also rooting for his players to get their degrees.  “I want them to have good lives. And that requires an education,” he said, adding that he has organized several alumni events over the years and it's been great to see former players doing well.

As he looks towards next year, Levy is pleased with the number of players expected to return.  “These are guys who know what they are in for and they care about being the best they can be individually and as a team.”

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