On Wednesday night, the UNH men’s basketball team squared off in a rubber match against the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in the first round of the America East playoffs. The two teams had split their two regular season meetings and were looking to get the final word on who was the best. Once the final buzzer sounded, it was the Wildcats that came out victorious over the Retrievers 74-65 to advance to the America East semifinals against the No. 1 seed, University of Vermont.
It was a game that saw UNH gain the lead and never look back as the Wildcats were ahead for all 40 minutes of the game. The reason why UNH never trailed in the game was because it scored consistently from all places on the floor. This mainly came from two of the Wildcats’ most consistent players.
Senior guard Jaleen Smith played a good all-around game as he tied junior Tanner Leissner with a game-high 20 points. Smith also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out seven assists to help the ‘Cats.
Leissner seemed to be scoring from everywhere as he scored from inside the paint and from outside the arch. He also earned four assists and swatted away two shots. It wasn’t all offense that won UNH the game however, its stellar defense allowed the ‘Cats to play a well-balanced game.
“We [as a team] talked about establishing the game in the first five minutes both offensively and defensively,” head coach Bill Herrion said of UNH’s gameplan going into the contest. “I thought our defense was terrific right out of the gate. I thought it was really good for the whole 40 minutes.”
Junior forward Iba Camara was the anchor on the defensive side of the floor by not allowing easy shots in the paint and not getting in foul trouble. This allowed Camara to play significant minutes which contributed to the double-double he earned against UMBC. He scored 10 points with 4-6 shooting from the floor and cleaned the glass with a game-high 16 rebounds.
Junior guard Jordan Reed got on the board first with a three from the wing to put the Wildcats up 3-0 just 30 seconds into the game. The Wildcats’ lead increased to eight points, 17-9, following a Leissner layup and a Dion three-pointer with 12:39 to play in the first half.
UNH continued to put it on UMBC as the team never allowed UMBC to tie the game. By the first half buzzer, the Wildcats led 36-29 as Leissner scored 12 points and Smith had 10. Camara also dominated the glass with nine rebounds in the half.
“We were focused on finishing the game in regulation,” Smith said of how the Wildcats held off the Retrievers. “We started to slow the pace down. We knew [UMBC] was going to press us. That is why we never let them get back into the game.”
Much like the start of the game, UNH came out full throttle and built a 13-point lead just five minutes into the second half. However, the Retrievers made a desperate push with a 12-0 run. UNH turnovers and defensive mistakes allowed UMBC to cut the UNH lead to 52-51 with 8:33 on the clock.
But the Wildcats quickly composed themselves and went on another run to go up 59-51 with roughly two minutes left in the game. UNH would continue to steam ahead and come out 74-65 winners.
With the win, UNH advances to the semifinals of the America East playoffs. The Wildcats will travel to Burlington, Vermont as they are set to face the number one seed in the conference, the University of Vermont Catamounts, on Monday, March 6 at 7 p.m. The Wildcats had their hopes of a conference title cut short in the semifinals last season at the hands of the Catamounts and will have to hand UVM its first conference loss of the season to make it to the conference finals.
“[UVM] is really, really good and I’ve been in this league a long time with two different schools,” Herrion said about UNH’s next matchup. “They’re as good of a team [that I’ve seen] in many, many years. It’s going to be a tough environment and we’ll have our work cut out.”