STORRS, Conn. – Every mid-major team that schedules a “guarantee game” always dreams of pulling the stunner, not only collecting the money for agreeing to play on the other team’s court but beating them there as well. With good reason, as we’ve seen already this season, it does happen from time to time.
But most times, it doesn’t, especially for a team like UConn, which went nearly 30 YEARS without losing to an in-state opponent (and they played plenty) before what turned out to be a very good Yale team caught them at a period where they were playing and shot the ball poorly at won in Gampel Pavilion.
So New Hampshire, which has never been to an NCAA Tournament and matched its all-time Division I win total last season with 19, really stood no chance (even though it led halfway through the first half, 16-15) against a UConn team that – with some luck – could be a contender to make a Final Four by March and April.
But, in the end, it was an effort that New Hampshire can not only be proud of, but build on going forward. The Wildcats began the year with some confidence that this might be the year their NCAA drought might end, and despite the final tally, they should leave Storrs with more confidence than they came there with, not less.
What else did we learn in front of a near packed house at Gampel Pavilion?
1) Leissner could be an America East star
Leissner is one of seven Texans on the New Hampshire roster, and New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion said afterward that if he were at a Prep school in New England, he would have had very little chance of signing him, but because he was in Converse, Texas (you can’t really call it little, the high school Leissner attended has nearly 5,000 students), he only had a couple of scholarship offers.
Leissner – who was injured for last season’s America East Tournament you may remember – looks stronger and had no trouble with confidence Tuesday, scoring 20 points in a variety of way. At 6’7”, he should be a handful for conference opponents. He had impressive rebounding and block numbers to go with his scoring in conference play last season, and only be better this time around.
“He’s a throwback, kind of old-school post man,” Herrion said. “He can back you down, he can shoot the three. He’s only a sophomore, and he’s really going to help us.”
“It’s still really early in the year,” Leissner said. “Coach wants me to step up this season and that’s what I expect. We want to use these non-conference games to get ready for conference and hopefully at the end we could see another school like UConn in the NCAA Tournament.”
2) Leissner had some company in the impressive category
It was an All-West African matchup at center with Amida Brimah of Ghana and UConn going up against Senegal’s (and New Hampshire’s) Iba Camara. Camara, a sophomore, gave up a few inches, but didn’t back down, and was even able to do the unthinkable – even for many much more heralded opponents – score over Brimah without getting his shot blocked (which did happen a couple of times, to be fair). Eight points and four rebounds doesn’t seem like much (he had 20 rebounds against Lyndon St. in the opener), but against one of the best frontlines in the country, it was.
New Hampshire was without the suspended Daniel Dion and Joe Bramanti, both of whom should return next week against Brown (they will serve the final game of the team-imposed ban against Holy Cross), but freshman Pat McNamara proved to be a sharpshooter and neither Jaleen Smith nor Jacoby Armstrong looked intimidated by the Huskies, as the Wildcats turned the ball over just five times in 67 possessions.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the same in America East, but they were 11-5 in conference last season with essentially the same personnel.
“I thought we were pretty good around the rim,” Herrion said. “I think we’re going to very good down there at our level, especially if we play like that.”
3) About that zone, though
New Hampshire rarely plays zone, but stayed in the 2-3 for every possession on Tuesday. It made some sense, as it confused UConn early, but to stay in it the whole game, even after the Huskies had figured it out and it looked as if they were going to win handily seems a little excessive. Herrion mentioned the suspensions and the matchup and that’s obviously understandable, but UConn finished at 1.27 points per possession. I guess 13-of-27 from behind the arc helps, too. Or maybe Herrion will become a zone team? Maybe not.
“What we’re trying to do with our program is try to take that next step and be a contender in America East. I thought our kids really competed and played really, really hard. I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ve been coaching at this level for 25 years, more than 700 games, and not once have I played a full game of zone until tonight. It’s not what we do. We hang our hat on our defensive numbers, but we were shorthanded tonight and had to roll the dice. They made 13 threes, but you have to pick your poison.”
Still, I would say – even with the final score – there were more positives than negatives on this night for Herrion and the Wildcats.