How did we get here? A look back at New Hampshire basketball’s wild ride to the semifinals

Matt Miller hit big shot after big shot for New Hampshire. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall
Matt Miller hit big shot after big shot for New Hampshire. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall
Matt Miller hit big shot after big shot for New Hampshire. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall

Unbelievable.

Four days after the final horn, even that word can’t describe New Hampshire basketball’s 67-63 overtime win in the America East Quarterfinals against Hartford in a game that had more excitement, drama, thrills, chills and spills than perhaps any other in Wildcats history.

This was a Wildcats team that won six games a year ago. One season later, they tied a school record with their 19th, in overtime, against Hartford in the America East Playoff in front of an atmospheric crowd of 1,848 fans at Lundholm Gymnasium.

The Wildcats thought it was over with 1.5 seconds left, right after sophomore guard Jaleen Smith made one of his two foul shots to give UNH a 54-52 lead.

Hartford needed to go the length of the court in under two seconds. Game over, right? Wrong.

Hartford senior Wes Cole threw a Hail Mary. Classmate Mark Nwakamma (20 points), along with Wildcat defenders Tommy McDonnell and Joe Bramanti all went up for the ball. All three fell to the hardwood. There was a whistle – or maybe there wasn’t – followed by silence and confusion. The refs huddled, they checked the monitor, and Nwakamma wound up sinking both free-throws with .3 seconds remaining.

What in the?

Overtime.

The once fired up UNH crowd was now silent. But New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, sharpshooter Matt Miller and the rest of the Wildcats refused to go quietly into the night.

Seconds into OT, Miller drilled a 3-pointer, bringing the crowd back to life. Miller then followed immediately with another basket, this one from inside the arc and the Wildcats grabbed a hold of the momentum and never let go.

The Wildcats won without its freshman stud Tanner Leissner, the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and America East Rookie of the Year due to a severe high ankle sprain, effectively ending his season.

In Bill Bellichick terms, it’s on to Albany.

Jalen Smith did a bit of everything for the Wildcats in their quarterfinal win. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall.
Jalen Smith did a bit of everything for the Wildcats in their quarterfinal win. Photo Credit: Steph Crandall.

UNH will play the America East playoff no. 1 seed Albany Great Danes at 2 p.m. today in the semifinals. Only this time, the Wildcats will be on the road, away from its electric and booming crowd. However, the Wildcats have been through these tests before.

The Wildcats had played two close games against the reigning regular season champs. The Wildcats fell 64-62 at home on Jan. 6 and then got squeaked 63-62 on the road on Feb. 4 without Leissner, who was out for with concussion-like symptoms. Expect another close game this weekend.

“These kids have been through every situation,” said Herrion. “They just really stuck together tonight. Their fight, their resiliency, their no quit attitude–just a great team to coach.”

The contribution in Wednesday’s win came from not just one, two or three players, but a complete team effort as New Hampshire showed just how much depth it has despite the loss of Leissner.

Sophomore guard Jaleen Smith, who has been described as “the rock” on this team, according to Herrion, stepped up as he contributed for 16 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, filling up the stat sheet in typical fashion.

Iba Camara, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward out of Senegal, got his sixth start of the season in Leissner’s place and was assigned the tough task of covering Nwakamma, one of the best big men in the league. Camara was able to grab seven of his nine rebounds in the first half.

Sophomore forward Jacoby Armstrong, contributed with 13 points and seven rebounds, and spelled Camara in covering Nwakamma during the game.Junior Ronnel Jordan added 12 points and three rebounds in just 26 minutes. Jordan averaged 14 minutes a game during the regular season.

“We had a lot of guys step up,” Miller said. “Ronnel came up huge today.”

Miller struggled for most of regulation, but made his biggest contribution when it counted, tallying nine of his 15 points in overtime.

“As a group we had to come together,” Miller said. “We did.”

Herrion praised his team for its never-quit attitude all season, but had to give credit when it was due on Wednesday night to the Wildcat fan base.

“I want to say this is my 10th year here and I want to say the last time I saw a crowd this big here in this building I was on the other bench visiting with Drexel,” Herrion said. “I remember this place being packed and this is what we’ve been building for. This is what we want here at UNH and for our basketball program. Without that crowd tonight, we wouldn’t have won it without them. They were an absolute sixth man. Great night for UNH.”