“Every time we win a game now, we’re doing something special with UNH basketball,” UNH head coach Bill Herrion said from the UNH bus late on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats had just finished completing two new program records by defeating the Fairfield Stags on the road by a score of 77-62. The win raised UNH’s record to 20-12 overall, the first 20-win season in UNH’s 112-year history, and it also came in the opening round of the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament (CIT), marking the first postseason victory in Wildcats’ history.
Leading the way for UNH was Jaleen Smith, who scored 19 of his team-high 22 points in the second half and nailed 13 of 14 free throw attempts to hold of the Stags. Sophomore Tanner Leissner also had a strong game, netting 15 points and eight rebounds. Junior Daniel Dion came off the bench and continued a torrid shooting streak, nailing five 3-pointers for 15 points.
“We got good contributions from everyone,” Herrion said, noting that the team had relied on too few players in several of its biggest games late in the year. While Smith, Leissner and Dion were impressive, they were hardly the only stars, as sophomore Iba Camara hauled in a team-high 11 rebounds and junior Jacoby Armstrong scored 10 points and had nine rebounds of his own.
The Wildcats set a program record earlier in the season when they won their 19th game in the opening round of the America East Playoffs, defeating the Binghamton Bearcats. The win brought UNH’s two-year win total to 38, the most in school history, but the celebration was short-lived.
UNH traveled to Vermont for the conference’s second round of playoffs on March 7. Burlington has been a house of horrors for UNH lately, and the playoff contest was no respite. Vermont cruised to an early lead and held on to secure a 63-56 win and a berth into the America East Conference Championships.
A day later, UNH received its CIT bid, but Herrion had his doubts about the team’s desire to play and called some of the more experienced players into his office to discuss whether or not UNH would accept the bid.
“They were adamant that they wanted to play,” he said.
UNH spent the nine days between games preparing for the Stags, who held a 9-0 record against UNH in the all-time series, but UNH’s goal was clear.
“Going into this tournament, our goal and motivation in practice was, ‘let’s win our 20th game,’” Herrion said.
The team did just that, using an exceptional opening half to jump out to a 41-24 lead over Fairfield. The Stags came out hot in the second half and cut the deficit to nine points, but Smith’s late-game heroics helped fend off Fairfield, who finished its season with a 19-14 overall record.
While the team’s goal for Wednesday night was to earn a new program record in single-season wins, Herrion said that the CIT tournament is also aiding the team in its long-term goals.
“We’re trying to use this experience in the CIT to springboard [into the NCAA tournament],” Herrion said. UNH has only one senior on the roster and seems poised to become one of the America East’s most dangerous teams next season.
While many other teams are done playing, the extra games and the postseason exposure is something that Herrion thinks will benefit his team next season.
“You can’t really put a price tag on it…it’s great experience,” Herrion said.
The Wildcats drew the Coastal Carolina Chantieleers in the CIT’s second round, but UNH’s season ended on Saturday, March 19. The ‘Cats played a tight game with the Chants, but eventually Coastal Carolina pulled away, sealing a 71-62 victory.
UNH was led in the loss by Dion, who registered four more three-pointers en route to 16 points. Leissner recorded a double-double, scoring 15 points of his own and grabbing an even 10 rebounds, while Smith chipped in 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Coastal Carolina’s Elijah Wilson and Badou Diagne each tallied 19 points to lead the Chants, who are now 20-11 on the season and will play in the CIT’s third round on March 23 at 7 p.m. According to Coastal Carolina’s website, the team’s opponent is still to be determined.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Herrion said that one of the goals for Saturday’s game would be to use the extra playing time to build a platform for success next season. The ‘Cats have improved drastically in each of the last two seasons, and the ultimate goal of an NCAA tournament berth does not seem out of next year’s team’s high expectations.
“That’s the ultimate goal of this basketball team,” Herrion said in his Wednesday night interview. “We’re not there yet.”