DURHAM, N.H. – After sweeping Stony Brook (7-7, 4-2 America East) last weekend in a series that was going to begin to dictate the direction of the Wildcats’ (7-6, 6-4 AE) season, University of New Hampshire men’s basketball had an opportunity to jump into the top-three of the America East standings. UNH welcomed UAlbany (4-6, 4-4 AE) into Lundholm Gymnasium for a date with the Great Danes as the conference standings remain in flux.
UNH gutted out a 71-64 win on Saturday behind junior forward Nick Guadarrama and redshirt first-year guard Nick Johnson to improve their standing. Sunday, however, told a different story; UAlbany brought the energy and the Wildcats dug themselves a hole they couldn’t climb out of. UNH now sits fifth in the conference but still has plenty of chances to make up ground.
Through the first half of Saturday’s matchup the Wildcats built as much as a 15-point lead over the Great Danes. Head coach Bill Herrion noted that he thought his side played very well defensively through the first 20 minutes.
UNH was able to keep UAlbany at a distance for much as the second half as well before the lead began to dwindle. It wasn’t until there was 9:17 to play when the Danes cut the UNH lead to less than 10 points; this is when the Wildcats began to feel the pressure.
UAlbany brought the deficit down to two points on three separate occasions in the final four minutes of action. Guadarrama and Johnson were able to hold off the comeback long enough to keep the win-streak alive on the first game of the weekend. Herrion noted postgame how important it is to win the first of these back-to-back games at this point in the season.
Herrion also explained that the Danes began to exploit his side defensively and find mismatches which is what led to the comeback from the other side.
Guadarrama led the way for UNH scoring 25 points and grabbing seven rebounds while shooting 5-of-8 from distance. Johnson played at team-high 38 minutes and scored 18 with 10 rebounds – his first double-double of the season.
Johnson’s performance on Saturday earned him his second straight America East Rookie of the Week, his third time receiving the honor. The rise of the Bronx native is coming at a perfect time for Herrion and his team as Herrion continues to look for a player to answer the offensive call in the absence of senior guards Sean Sutherlin and Josh Hopkins.
“We’ve got to get a few more players involved offensively. Everything we do obviously runs through Nick Guadarrama,” said Herrion. “[Johnson] had a great weekend last week at Stony Brook, but we’ve got to get a little more offensive contribution from some people.”
In the second of the back-to-back UAlbany brought all the energy and was able to get hot from the outside while UNH had a lid on the basket for much of the afternoon.
The Great Danes built as much as a 24-point lead over the Wildcats in the first half. They shot 56% from the field in the first 20 minutes including 50% from three-point range. UNH, however shot just 33% from the field and 17% from deep in the first half.
The Wildcats were able to get more shots to fall in the second half, but the story was mostly the same. UAlbany built the lead up to as much as 25 and never let UNH get any closer than 19.
UAlbany had five players score double digits in the 83-64 win. Junior guards C.J. Kelly and Antonio Rizzuto led the way with 23 and 16 points respectively.
The two leading scorers from Saturday for UNH – Guadarrama and Johnson – combined for just eight points on Sunday. Junior guard Marque Maultsby and redshirt first-year guard Blondeau Tchoukuiengo each scored 14 in the loss; Maultsby added four rebounds and three assists.
Herrion noted a handful of times last season that the team needed to learn how to win if they wanted to take that next step. This was a point that he mentioned once again after being swept by UMBC at home a couple weekends ago. Getting down to the final stretch of the season Herrion believes his team still has room to grow in that department.
“It’s a process that we still have to go through; we’re still learning how to win,” Herrion said. “We’re getting to a point in the season now where it’s almost February and every game has a bearing on where you are in the standings.”
The Wildcats are still within striking distance of the top of the conference, but this loss will play big as they head into one of their tougher stretches of the season. The next three weekends they will face last place Binghamton (1-12, 1-9 AE), eighth place NJIT (5-7, 3-5 AE) and second place Vermont (7-3, 7-3 AE). The catch here is that each of these games will be on the road for UNH. The Wildcats will not play a game in Durham for a month when they will welcome UMass Lowell into Lundholm for the season finale on Feb. 27 and 28.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Bronner