This is a guest post from New Hampshire student Sam Donnelly who was at UNH’s victory over Albany last night.
At this point in the season, there was zero doubt that Thursday night against three-time America East champion Albany was the most important game on the schedule for the University of New Hampshire. Why? Because this was the Wildcats’ final chance at home to prove they can play with the likes of Vermont and Stony Brook, both teams they must still travel to face.
The last four times these two teams met, UNH had been at the short end of the stick all four times. The very short end. The Wildcats lost those four games by a combined ten points, including one overtime finish. It was time to get the proverbial monkey off their back and that’s exactly what they did.
After UNH junior guard Jaleen Smith lit the Great Danes up in the first half, with all 16 of his points, the second half belonged to last year’s America East Rookie of the year, Tanner Leissner. With just 15 seconds to play, the Wildcats trailed by two, but had the ball. Head coach Bill Herrion called a timeout and drew up a simple play. Give Leissner the ball, everyone out of the way.
“We had been struggling late offensively,” Leissner said. “It was an isolation play for me to go to the rim. I got a lucky bounce which was really nice.”
Leissner barreled into the lane, drew contact, and put the ball on the rim, where it bounced twice and fell in to tie the game. As Albany players stood in disbelief, Leissner calmly approached the free throw line. Without even blinking, Leissner knocked it down.
“Leissner is a stud,” said Albany head coach Will Brown. “You have to credit him. Not only did he make the basket, when he was put to the line he made the free throw.”
Evan Singletary got a decent look to win the game at the buzzer for the Great Danes, but hit to back iron as time expired. UNH had finally taken down the America East goliath that is Albany.
“This is a heck of a win for us,” Herrion said. “Really proud of the kids, they didn’t quit, really fought and showed great resiliency. We are very fortunate to beat a very good basketball team.”
Here are a few thoughts from Thursday night’s instant classic.
What Jacoby Armstrong is, the Wildcats missed early.
UNH was short one of their all-conference big men Jacoby Armstrong, who is currently serving the final game of a three game suspension for violating team rules. Without Armstrong, the UNH frontcourt was reduced to Leissner, struggling sophomore Iba Camara, and freshman David Watkins, who averages a team low 4.4 mpg. With that in mind, Herrion elected to play a zone defense, with his thought being the big guys would stay out of foul trouble. They did, but the defense was anything but effective.
“Our concern to start the game was foul trouble,” Herrion said. “That’s why we went with the zone. We aren’t a zone team… We don’t work on it that much. Obviously. We were really bad in it to start the game.”
In the zone, the Great Danes outscored the Wildcats 14-4 in the paint and tallied seven second chance points purely off of rebounds. In that sense, the Wildcats missed Armstrong’s depth.
Offensively, UNH needed him. Armstrong averages 12.4 ppg, third on the team. In the first half, the UNH front court had 16 points, 11 from Leissner. They were outscored 16-8 in the paint. Armstrong also hauls down 5.5 rpg. The Wildcats were out-rebounded in the first half 17-13. If Armstrong had been eligible, UNH would have undoubtedly competed better in the paint during the first half.
Ray Sanders is not a role player.
Albany struggled shooting the ball in the first half, with the exception of Ray Sanders. Just one Great Dane player reached double digits by halftime. In fact, no other Great Dane scored more than four points before the break. Sanders finished the half with 13 points on 5-8 shooting.
“Ray played really well,” said Brown. “I thought his energy was really good. Really outside of Ray there weren’t many bright spots.”
Outside of Sanders, the Great Danes had a tough time scoring. Not only that, without his 13-point first half, they probably would have been down a significant amount heading into the locker room.
In the second half, Sanders took his game to another level by taking on the Wildcats best guard, Jaleen Smith. Smith bested Sanders in the first half by scoring 16 points. In the second half, that wasn’t going to happen. Sanders held Smith to zero points in the second half and continued his own offensive onslaught. Sanders hit key shots, including four straight free throws to regain the lead. In the second half, Sanders had 10 point and was once again the highest scorer of the half. In the end, Sanders finished with 23 points and five rebounds, including three offensive. Despite his performance, Sanders was not even close to satisfied after the game.
“Just a tough loss,” Sanders said with his head down. “It’s not the end of the world, we are still in second place and we are going to have to play them again. Just time to pick everybody up.”
On a team where Peter Hooley and Evan Singletary are the “stars,” Singletary might be the most overlooked.
A good Iba Camara makes UNH very dangerous.
After struggling mightily in the first half, Herrion spoke directly to sophomore center Iba Camara at halftime.
“At half time coached talked to all of us but especially me,” Camara said. “He told me I needed to step up. I needed to help the team win.”
He did just that. In the second half Camara had 10 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks. He finished the game with 12 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, and two assists. As Camara began to get aggressive, UNH began to work efficiently. In the second half Camara shot 4-6 from the field and 2-3 from the free throw line. He also drew two fouls on Albany big man Mike Rowley down the stretch and forced him to the bench.
With Armstrong out again this Sunday as the Wildcats travel to take on top ranked Stony Brook, UNH will need Camara to play a full game, like the one he did in the second half Thursday night.
Freshman David Watkins also contributed in his limited minutes, scoring five points in just four minutes of play. The Wildcats will undoubtable need Watkins against the front line of Stony Brook that puts the opposing team’s front court players into foul trouble.
Sam Donnelly is a reporter for TNH. You can follow him on Twitter at Sam17don.