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Indication of things to come for UNH men’s basketball?

Special to the Union Leader

January 01. 2018 8:26PM

University of New Hampshire's Jordan Reed, facing, watches as Dartmouth's Taylor Johnson tries to pull in a loose ball during the first half of their game at UNH in Durham on Saturday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

The non-conference slate was not kind to the New Hampshire men’s basketball team. The Wildcats went 4-10 and saw multiple games slip through their grasp against Florida, American and Niagara.

However, if the Wildcats’ last non-conference game is any indication, all the tough days may have strengthened them for the rugged America East slate that lies ahead.

UNH took in-state rival Dartmouth apart 83-66 on Saturday night in the team’s most complete performance of the season.

“I think one of the issues we’ve had the first half of the season is trying to find an identity on the defensive end of the floor,” UNH coach Bill Herrion said after the game. “We’ve always built this program on playing really hard defense. I think this is more who we are. We established the game defensively right from the tip.”

A backcourt full of talented, but young, players looked to click on both ends of the floor against the Big Green. Sophomore guard John Ogwuche had eight rebounds, seven rebounds, and a pair of assists in 22 minutes off the bench against Dartmouth. More than that, Ogwuche and freshman Elijah Jordan were tasked with defending with Dartmouth’s leading scorer, Brendan Barry.

Barry, who entered the game averaging a shade under 14 points a game, was held to a single point.

“John’s one of our best athletes,” Herrion said. “He has the ability to be a lockdown defender. He’s an athletic enough kid to get on the glass.”

The Wildcats’ defense is already tops in the league. Going into league play. UNH leads the league in points allowed per game (66.3), field goal defense (41.3 percent), and three-point field goal defense (31.7 percent).

Jordan had six assists and fellow freshman Josh Hopkins had 11 points off the bench. Hopkins, a threat to score whenever he has the ball, is becoming a much-needed third scoring option for the team after seniors Tanner Leissner and Iba Camara.

“We’re really happy with him,” Herrion said of Hopkins. “I think he’s going to be a heck of a player. He can really shoot it.”

While the freshmen are coming into their own, the veteran leaders are starting to find their groove once again. Leissner had 32 points against the Green and is averaging 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a night, good for second and fourth in America East respectively. Camara leads the league in rebounding with 10.1 boards a game.

Another development for the Wildcats on Saturday was Jacoby Armstrong finding his edge. The graduate student, who redshirted last year, looked like a dominant force on the inside for the Wildcats with two huge dunks and 21 points against the Big Green.

“The main thing is build off this,” Armstrong said. “If we can maintain our defensive intensity, defensive accountability and communication, we’ll be fine. We played Texas, Florida. We had a tough schedule. I think that was a good test for us going into conference.”

The conference slate begins Wednesday when the Wildcats travel to Baltimore to play UMBC. Last year the Wildcats played the Retrievers three times, winning two, including in the conference tournament quarterfinals. The two regular-season contests last year both went to double overtime.

Leissner played 125 of the 140 combine minutes against UMBC last year and scored 86 points against the Retrievers, including a career-high 36 in Baltimore in a 105-103 loss last January.

“Really talented offensive basketball team,” Leissner said of UMBC. “We had three unbelievable games with them last year. It’s going to be a really difficult game. Everyone’s chasing the goal of winning the league and making the NCAA tournament. They’re a really good basketball. We’ve got to build off this game and try to get better.”