By Sam Donnelly, Staff Writer
No Tanner Leissner, almost a problem. With one second left in regulation, Hartford threw the ball the length of the court to senior Mark Nwakamma who came up with it and drew a foul to put him at the free throw line, where he calmly knocked down both to force overtime. Despite the late-game dramatics, UNH held on in overtime to beat Hartford 67-63 in overtime.
The Wildcats outscored the Hawks 13-9 in overtime with senior Matt Miller leading the way, scoring nine of his 15 points in overtime. Jaleen Smith led the Wildcats with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while Jacoby Armstrong chipped in with 13 points and seven rebounds. Nwakamma led the Hawks with 20 points and five rebounds.
“This is my tenth year here,” head coach Bill Herrion said. “Our crowd tonight … I don’t know if we win the game without them. Unbelievable atmosphere.”
Despite the uplifting win, Herrion informed the media for the first time after the game that the teams leading scorer and America East rookie of the year, will miss the rest of the season.
“He got hurt in practice on Monday,” Herrion said. “Right now we think it’s a severe high ankle sprain. We aren’t going to have him so we have to move on.”
When the game got under way, it didn’t matter who was in or who was out. After the first six minutes, UNH held a slight edge at 7-6 until Jaleen Smith went on a 5-0 run of his own to push the Wildcat lead to 12-6. Hartford responded quickly out the timeout with a quick four points to close the gap.
The Wildcats used their defense to finish off the half with a 32-23 lead. Smith led all scorers with 10 points and three rebound, while Mark Nwakamma paced the Hawks with eight points and two rebounds.
The Hawks came out fast in the second half, scoring eight unanswered points, including two three-pointers by shooting guard Taylor Dyson, to cut the lead the 32-31. Out of the timeout, Hartford continued their attack. Another Dyson three-pointer left the Hawks with a 37-33 lead over the Wildcats. UNH had scored just one point in five minutes of play.
“We went into halftime and said ‘we’re going to run,’” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said. “We came out on a 15-1 run, I think we are best when we are up and down. We just don’t flinch. It’s not in our mental makeup.”
UNH didn’t flinch and responded with a 7-2 run of its own, sparked by a pair of threes from Miller and Smith. Both teams battled back and forth. With just over six minutes remaining, Hartford held a four-point lead, 49-45.
At the three-minute mark Hartford held a 52-49. A layup by Ronnel Jordan cut the lead to one with 2:02 to play. Two possessions later, the Wildcats scored again, this time with Jacoby Armstrong uncontested under the net, to give the Wildcats a one point lead with 14.8 seconds to play. The Hawks threw the ball towards the hoop and multiple bodies hit the ground. The referees blew the whistle, stopped, consulted and decided to call a foul on UNH, putting Nwakamma on the line for a one-and-one. As for the call, Herrion didn’t have much to say, mostly because it wasn’t something he would want in the paper.
“Do you really want to know?” Herrion said. “I told them to just try and get a hand on the ball. The whistle blew and I don’t know, initially, if they knew what the call was going to be.”
Overtime was more of the same. Both teams traded baskets and worked the shot clock almost all the way down each possession. UNH scored the first points off a Miller three-pointer and never gave the lead back again. Smith and Miller hit their free throws down the stretch and the Wildcats advance to the semi-final round with a 67-63 win.
“They were pretty locked in on me defensively,” Miller said. “I knew I had to get something going to help us win.”
The Wildcats improved their season record to 19-11, while the Hawks fall to 14-17 to finish the season.
“These guys are a great team to coach,” Herrion said. “These kids have been through every situation and have really stuck together.”
UNH will head to Albany on Sunday, March 8th for a 2 p.m. semifinal game. UNH has played Albany twice this season, losing to the No. 1 team by a total of three combined points. The second time, the Wildcats were without Leissner and still took the Great Danes down to the final seconds. Despite losing twice, Smith seems confident in the Wildcats chances.
“We was right with them last time without Tanner,” Smith said. “So I say we are going to get them this time.”
Despite the comment, after Smith left the conference room Herrion had nothing but praise for him.
“He’s been our best player since the summer,” Herrion said. “The jump that he has made from freshman to sophomore year has been remarkable. He is possibly our team MVP.