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Men's Basketball: Wildcats let another one slip away

Special to the Union Leader

February 18. 2018 9:21PM

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Late in the second half of the University of New Hampshire men’s basketball team’s game at Stony Brook, Wildcats head coach Bill Herrion looked down at the floor, chin in hand, shaking his head as yet another turnover led to yet another easy bucket on the other end.

He had seen this scenario before, a once-promising contest quickly swing from the win to the loss column. In this instance, the Seawolves defense ratcheted up defensive pressure over the game’s final 15 minutes, forcing 14 second-half turnovers to turn a 10-point deficit into a 72-63 win.

“They just really tightened the screws on us, and we didn’t respond,” said Herrion, whose club dropped to 6-8 in America East, 10-18 overall. “That’s been our team all year though. We’ve been in situations a number of times when we get people down and can’t sustain it.”

Ahead 36-33 through intermission, the Wildcats roared out of the locker rooms in the second half, and when Tanner Leissner wheeled in the paint and scored with 15:45 remaining, the Wildcats had built their largest lead of the afternoon at 45-35.

With his team poised to win for the first time at Stony Brook since 2014, Herrion knew better than to expect the Seawolves to go quietly, not in a series in which the previous four games had been decided by a total of nine points.

The wheels began to wobble for UNH as the Seawolves turned to a veteran lineup — four seniors and a redshirt sophomore — for much of the rest of the game. While Leissner continued to do damage — 15 of his game-high 27 came in the second half — the rest of the team not only went cold but grew careless with the ball.

Stony Brook’s defensive pressure allowed it to slowly reel in the Wildcats over the next 10 minutes, finally pulling them even at 54-all on a three-pointer by Bryan Sekunda with 6:10 remaining. The Seawolves stayed on the accelerator, pulling in front by as many as 12 points, finishing the game on a 37-18 run.

“We played well in the first half, but then they just out-toughed us,” said Leissner. “Offensive rebounds were a big key to their success in the first half, and then we just had too many turnovers that led to a lot of easy baskets. They were just really aggressive and active defensively.”

Stony Brook iced the game from the free throw line, going 20 for 26 at the stripe a month after their dismal 10-for-24 performance aided the Wildcats to a 53-51 win. Senior UC Iroegbu led the Seawolves with 17 points.

UNH dropped to 0-13 when allowing the opposition to eclipse the 70-point mark. “What I saw from the sidelines were four seniors on the court who were playing with unbelievable desperation, with their careers winding down,” Herrion said. “They played with incredible defensive urgency, and really turned the heat up on us.”

Leissner’s team-high 27 points brought him just 101 shy of the 2,000-point plateau with three games remaining, at minimum. Fifteen of his 27 came in the second half; his teammates combined for just 12 after the break. No other Wildcat reached double figures on the afternoon.

“Tanner had a great game, but you get pretty predictable on offense when nobody else contributes,” Herrion said.

With the loss, UNH slipped to 2-10 on the road, a troubling trend with a path to a top-four seed in next week’s America East tournament — and thus a first-round home game — less likely following a stretch of five losses in the last six games. Sunday’s result allowed the Seawolves to leapfrog UNH into the fifth spot in the conference standings with two games remaining.

“We’re trying to end this the right way — with some pride, with our heads up,” Herrion said. “We’re still fighting for a first-round home court game, but we have to win. We haven’t answered that bell. We have to go back and regroup, and go down and try to beat a very good Hartford team on Wednesday.

“I’m just really frustrated,” he added. “It’s on me because I’m the head coach. It’s my responsibility. But we need leaders. Stony Brook rode its veterans. That’s what you’d like to do with your team.”