Despite a heartbreaking end to their quest for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, New Hampshire basketball will continue its magical season for at least one more game, and have a chance to set a new school record for wins in the program’s first ever post season appearance.
On Wednesday afternoon the 19-win Wildcats announced that they had accepted an invitation to play in the 32-team CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), giving them a chance to reach the 20-win plateau for the first time in school history.
New Hampshire’s opponent has not yet been determined, as the entire CIT field will not be finalized until after the NCAA Tournament field is chosen on “selection Sunday” and the subsequent NIT tournament team’s are also chosen. However, the Wildcats know they will begin the single-elimination tournament on the road sometime between March 11 and March 15.
Arguably the biggest surprise in the entire America East Conference, after finishing the 2013-2014 season in last place at 4-12 in league play and 6-24 overall, head coach Bill Herrion completely reinvented the Wildcats and himself, running an offense based on dribble penetration from guards Jaleen Smith and Daniel Dion, low post scoring from forward Tanner Leissner and Jacoby Armstrong, and the unconscious outside shooting of Matt Miller, and fought their way to a 19-12 overall record and fourth place finish in league play at 11-5.
Their 19 total wins matched the program’s best mark, set 20 years ago during the 1994-1995 season. UNH also scored the program’s first home playoff win for the first time since 94-95, downing fifth-seed Hartford 67-63 in overtime before a raucous crowd in the America East quarterfinals on March 4.
Despite playing the entire post season without Leissner — the 2015 America East Rookie of the Year and the Wildcats’ top scorer and rebounder was lost due to a bad high-ankle sprain — New Hampshire gave top-seed Albany everything it could handle, falling 60-58 in the America East semifinals only after a last second 3-point attempt by Smith missed the mark.
Despite their loss to Albany, the Wildcats will enter the CIT having won 11 of their last 14. While the Wildcats reinvented themselves on offense, they got back to Herrion staples as the league’s top defense: running opposing shooters off the perimeter, attacking the class with reckless abandon and flying across the floor for loose balls. New Hampshire held opponents to 60.9 points per game, and currently ranks eighth in the nation in defenisive rebounds (27.3 per game), and 25th nationally in 3-point field goal percent defense (30.5).
While the CIT will give the Wildcats a chance to set program records, it will also give Miller at least one more game in his college career.
One of the best — but potentially most bittersweet – stories in all of college basketball, Miller began his career at Division II Seton Hill after being passed over by every team in Division I basketball, including UNH. After shooting lights out for two years, Miller was able to earn a scholarship and transfer up to UNH, fulfilling his lifelong dream of Division I ball.
But after sitting out during the 2012-2013 season as a transfer, Miller tore his ACL before playing a single minute last season. After a grueling year of rehab, he finally set foot on a Division I court, and promptly set it on fire, finishing the season hitting 49.2 percent of his 3-pointers, reportedly the highest single-season mark in America East Conference history.
After missing two years – one as a transfer and one due to injury – Miller is applying for a sixth year of eligibility with the NCAA – something one mid-major coach referred to as “as hard as hitting the lottery” for small conference players. With no guarantee of another year of eligibility, the CIT could be the final chapter of Miller’s remarkable but heartbreakingly short Division I story.