By SAM DONNELLY
It took everything the Wildcats had Tuesday night to beat Hartford in overtime, 76-70. Sophomore Jaleen Smith led the Wildcats with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman Tanner Leissner and senior Matt Miller each chipped in 16 points. This is the second time this season UNH was forced into overtime, and the 12th time they have played a game decided by six points or fewer.
“Sometimes you go through years where you get in a lot of close games and you don’t win,” head coach Bill Herrion said. “Fortunately this year we have been able to win those games. It comes down to our guys being able to make plays in crucial situations. It’s a team that doesn’t quit.”
The game was back and forth the entire way. The Wildcats led 61-58 with eight second left, when Hartford guard Wes Cole drilled a three pointer to force overtime. The Wildcats didn’t panic and outscored Hartford 15-9 in overtime, including five points by Miller and four crucial free throws by Smith.
“We didn’t flinch,” Herrion said. “That’s how this team has been. We aren’t afraid of these moments.”
The Wildcats improved to 15-10 with an 8-4 conference record. The 15th win is the most in the era of Herrion, who has coached the UNH men’s basketball team for ten seasons. Despite the milestone, it means nothing to Herrion unless they win more.
“I’ve been doing this too long,” Herrion said. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence. From day one, it’s about being a better basketball team. It’s about winning every next game. Fifteen [wins] is great, but we want more.”
For the first time in six seasons, the Wildcats will be playing crucial games in February as they vie for a first-round bye in the America East tournament. UNH currently sits in third place, behind undefeated Albany and Vermont, a team the Wildcats have beaten. Despite not being in this position often, Herrion believes that the answer is taking care of what you can control.
“It’s good for these kids to be playing meaningful games,” Herrion said. “It’s what college basketball is all about.”
At the beginning of this season, America East changed its tournament format. Instead of playing all the games at a neutral site, the top-four teams will receive a first-round bye, while the top team will have home court advantage throughout the tournament.
The Wildcats success has come from statistical contributions from young guys on the team. Herrion says, however, that the key to their success has been something you can’t find on a stat sheet. Leadership from senior captain Tommy McDonnell, the son of head football coach Sean McDonnell, who only averages just 1.7 points and 11 minutes played a game.
“He has done an unbelievable job with leadership this year,” Herrion said. “Even though he isn’t playing as many minutes, his attitude has been terrific with the young guys and he deserves a lot of credit.”
The Wildcats will take the court again this Saturday at home when Binghamton comes into Lundholm gym. The Bearcats took UNH into overtime in mid-January and despite their lack luster record, Herrion makes it clear that the Wildcats will not overlook them.
“We have tried to sell the process to this team,” Herrion said. “Just win the next game.” The game will be played in Lundholm gym at 1 p.m.