Men's Basketball: Wildcats look for more in tournament
By ALLEN LESSELS Special to the Union Leader
DURHAM — A year ago, they packed the place.
The UNH men’s basketball team played a rare home game in the America East Conference tournament and fans filled Lundholm Gymnasium and whooped it up as the Wildcats survived a scare and overtime to knock off Hartford and advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2010.
Tonight, the No. 4 seeded Wildcats look to double up and do it again.
They play No. 5 Binghamton back at Lundholm in an America East quarterfinal at 7:30 p.m. A limited number of tickets are available for the game and may be purchased by calling 862-4000.
The winner advances to a semifinal game on Monday, March 7.
“The last two years we’ve started to get this program to the point where we’re playing big games, meaningful games, at the end of February and into March,” said UNH coach Bill Herrion. “That can only help you as far as the growth of the program. With that said, our goal is not just to get home games. We want to win the league tournament and get to the NCAA tournament. . . . This is the closest we’ve ever been to getting to the ultimate goal, which is winning a championship.”
The Wildcats have an added weapon compared to last year.
Days before last year’s tournament started, Tanner Leissner — then a freshman and the America East Rookie of the Year — went down in practice with a foot injury. UNH beat Hartford in the quarterfinals and lost in the semifinals by two points in a heartbreaker at eventual champion Albany without him.
Leissner, now a sophomore, built on last year and Monday was named to the America East All Conference first team.
Now he gets his first chance to play in the postseason as a Wildcat.
“I’m real excited,” Leissner said. “Last year it was great to just be a part of the atmosphere, even on the bench. Tomorrow, hopefully it will be the same. I’m excited to get to play and hopefully help in our success and play in front of this crowd and bring them home a win. But we’re not here just to play in front of a lot of fans. It will be a great environment to play in front of, but it’s one game and we still have two more after that, hopefully.”
Junior guard Jaleen Smith joined Leissner in collecting league honors as a second-team All- Conference selection.
Leissner leads UNH in scoring and is third in the league at 15.6 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 6.9 a game.
The other four players on the All-Conference first team were seniors and Leissner was the first Wildcat picked to the top squad since Blagoj Janov in 2006.
“We know how good a player Tanner is,” Herrion said. “What that says is the other coaches in the league really respect him and think he’s a good player. He’s made a big jump from last year to this year and he’s drawing a lot of attention and that’s going to continue. When you’re an All-Conference guy, people are going to keep coming at you.”
Herrion calls Leissner an “old school player.”
“What I mean by that is he can score inside when you need him to score inside, he can play out on the perimeter, he can make a three and he can put the ball on the floor and he can pass it,” Herrion said. “His skill level and his basketball IQ are very high.”
Leissner is one of several Wildcats who have stepped up their games and statistics this season.
Smith, senior guard Ronnel Jordan and junior Jacoby Armstrong are among the others.
Smith is second on the team in points at 13.2 a game and Armstrong is next with 12 points and 5.3 rebounds. Jordan checks in at 9.6 points and four rebounds. Sophomore forward Iba Camara is second in the league at 8.9 rebounds per game and averages 8.3 points. Junior guard Daniel Dion averages 8.4 points a game.
Smith also leads America East in free throw percentage, hitting 96 of his 108 foul shots for 88.9 percent, which is eighth best in Division I.
UNH takes an 18-11 overall record into the tournament and was 11-5 in America East play. Binghamton was 8-21 and 5-11 and won its last two games.
“It’s always about us first,” Leissner said. “We just have to play our game and play to the best of our abilities and just go out and execute the game plan. Just be smart, keep low turnovers and the rest will take care of itself.”
The Wildcats swept Binghamton in the two regular-season games between the teams this year. They won in Durham, 58-43, on Jan. 9 and in Binghamton, 59-55, on Feb. 6.
“We had a very tough game with them at Binghamton and we haven’t seen them in a while,” Herrion said. “They’re very dangerous. They’re coming in here playing real good basketball and they’ve won three of their last five games and they have very good young talent. This time of year, if you don’t play well, anybody can beat you.”
The winner of tonight’s game moves on and the other closes up shop for the season.
The Wildcats have already set a program record for most wins in a two-year span — they’re at 37 and counting — and they have a few other milestones in mind.
UNH has never made it as far as the America East championship game.
Before the Wildcats worry about that, though, they must get past Binghamton.