Injuries had plagued the University of New Hampshire men’s basketball team (3-3) to this point in the season, but head coach Bill Herrion finally had his entire rotation available for the weekend set with the UMBC Retrievers (5-1).
Each team came into the series tied for second in the America East with 3-1 conference records, but UNH was subsequently swept by the Retrievers.
After the weekend losses, UNH has dropped to sixth in the standings and has left Herrion searching for answers ahead of a matchup with the top-ranked Stony Brook Seawolves (4-0).
The Wildcats struggled keeping up with the big men of UMBC in the first game of the back-to-back. Senior forwards Brandon Horvath and Dimitrije Spasojevic terrorized UNH in the paint all afternoon. Herrion had trouble matching up with the big men each standing 6-foot-10. UNH junior forwards Nick Guadarrama and Jayden Martinez did all they could but standing from 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 respectively they had trouble putting a stop to the UMBC attack.
Horvath scored 13 points with five rebounds while Spasojevic added eight points and seven rebounds. Herrion noted postgame that he thinks Horvath has a shot to be the America East Player of the Year.
Spasojevic and Horvath scored the first eight points of the game before UNH got on the board by way of a jump shot from junior point guard Marque Maultsby four minutes into the game.
UNH slowly found their rhythm but the Retrievers didn’t let up as they methodically built a 12-point lead at multiple points in the first half. Junior guard L.J. Owens led the way scoring 12 points in the first 20 minutes while sinking a trio of three-pointers; the last of which came just before halftime with three seconds remaining.
The second half was more of the same as the Wildcats failed to find the basket and didn’t have an answer for the Retriever offense. Head coach Ryan Odom fed UNH a steady diet of Horvath, Owens, junior guards R.J. Eytle-Rock, Keondre Kennedy and Jacob Boonyasith. UMBC pushed the lead ahead to as much as 26 in the second half.
A late run by the Wildcats brought the deficit down to just 15 making the final score 69-54 in favor of UMBC.
Owens finished with a team-high 17 points, Eytle-Rock added 11, and Kennedy scored six with 10 rebounds.
Redshirt first-year guard Blondeau Tchoukuiengo was the only Wildcat to score double digits as he added 10 points to the 15-point loss. Tchoukuiengo’s performance earned him his second America East Rookie of the Week on the season.
Herrion was disappointed in his team’s preparation heading into game one of the back-to-back.
“We got beat right from the opening tip,” Herrion said. “I think for whatever reason they were just a much more prepared, hungrier basketball team than we were…They established an inside game and jumped us, and we just never recovered.”
While Tchoukuiengo and junior transfer Qon Murphy gave the team productive minutes, Herrion highlighted the fact that the older players on this roster are going to have to step up if this team wants to win games like Saturday’s.
The Wildcats seemed to find a matchup that was able to diminish the attack of Spasojevic and Horvath for the second game of the back-to-back. Herrion inserted junior transfer student Tayler Mattos into the starting lineup at center which also helped unleash Guadarrama on offense.
Mattos scored 11 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in 24 minutes on Sunday. The 6-foot-11 transfer from Bowling Green countered the productivity of Spasojevic who scored just six points in 18 minutes.
Herrion noted postgame how Guadarrama struggled offensively on Saturday because he was often guarded by bigger players since he was playing the role of the center for much of that game. The insertion of Mattos into the rotation, however, allowed Guadarrama to go up against players that he could exploit. The Connecticut native exploded for 34 points shooting 11-for-20 from the field including 4-of-6 from downtown.
The Wildcats seemed to have found the answers as the sides volleyed with the lead for much of the first half before a pair of Guadarrama free throws sent UNH into the locker room with a six-point lead at halftime.
Four straight jump shots from Guadarrama helped UNH build an 11-point lead early in the second half but with 12 minutes to play, Eytle-Rock took the game into his hands and drove UMBC to the finish line.
Eytle-Rock scored 18 second half-points as he and Guadarrama went basket-for-basket down the stretch. UNH finally began to get hot from behind the three-point line just as Eytle-Rock turned on the jets, keeping them in the game until the final seconds.
Each team was in the bonus for the last few minutes of action which turned the game into a free throw battle. Eytle-Rock put the game on ice for the Retrievers sinking the final two free throws of the afternoon and mid-range jumper to give his side a two-point lead with 58 seconds remaining. That margin held as UMBC stole a 68-66 win to sweep the weekend, putting them in sole position of second place in the America East.
Herrion gave credit to the Retrievers for going with a smaller lineup down the stretch which in turn kept Mattos out of the game defensively. Herrion explained that they’ll have to implement a zone defense in order to keep Mattos on the floor in those situations, but on Sunday he said his guards got outmatched by the opponent.
Echoing his statements from the day prior, he also made note that he thought his team responded well after a bad loss, but they still don’t have the winning DNA that UMBC has.
“We’ve got a lot of figuring out to do with this basketball team,” Herrion said.
Herrion will only have six days to figure it out as UNH heads to New York for a date with Stony Brook on Saturday and Sunday for a pair of 2 p.m. tip-offs.
Photo Courtesy of Jack Bouchard