Sources have confirmed that Stony Brook forwards Scott King and Chris Braley will transfer out of the program at the end of the semester.
An extremely extremely long and athletic stretch-four with the ability to knock down shots from behind the arc 6’10”, King never really put it together on the court, averaging just 3.1 points and 1.2 rebounds per game over his career. As a red-shirt junior, King saw his playing time and touches decrease, averaging career-lows of 7.9 minutes and 3.0 points per game. King will graduate this summer and be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer.
An extremely strong and physical forward, at 6’5”, Braley brought toughness and rebounding to the floor, but struggled to carve out a niche. Recruited for his 3-point shooting, Braley struggled to find his stroke, hitting just 26.3 percent of his threes over his first two seasons, including just 21.1 percent as a sophomore during the past season. Should he transfer to another Division I program, Braley will have to sit out the 2015-2016 season per NCAA transfer rules, but can play immediately if he transfers to a lower division.
Both King and Braley were blocked from above on the Seawolves’ depth chart by two-time conference player of the year Jameel Warney, as well as forwards Rayshaun McGrew, Roland Nyama, Tyrell Sturdivant and Jakob Petrus.
This year’s NCAA Tournament is a tad short on the Cinderella story.
UCLA is the worst seed in the Sweet 16 at No. 11, and we all know the Bruins’ storied history. Wichita State and Gonzaga are the only Sweet 16 teams that don’t hail from a power conference. Neither could really be considered a Cinderella anymore, anyway, not with the Shockers two years removed from a Final Four, one year from a No. 1 seed and not even a week from a top-15 national ranking, and not with the Bulldogs, a No. 2 seed.
So Sam Perkins and Doric Sam took a trip down memory lane, recounting their favorite Cinderella stories from NCAA Tournaments past.
This is a really tough one for me. Although my earliest college hoops memories are of rooting on “Tark the Shark,” Larry “Grandmama” Johnson and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, and I grew up in the John Calipari “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen family (where my father played college hoops way back in the day), I’ve always been a fan of college basketball’s Cinderellas and underdogs, so choosing just one is hard.
I have to give honorable mention to the Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo/Quinton Hall “The Slipper Still Fits” Gonzaga team of the 98-99 season that went to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed — THE team in which the entire subsequent Bulldogs program has built upon. That was one hell of a tough, physical, gritty team that showed no fear against the college hoops big boys, knocking off No. 7 Minnesota, No. 2 Stanford and then a Florida team featuring about a half-dozen future NBA players — I can still remember watching that whole run as a high school freshman, screaming at my TV with my brother, my good friend Noah, and his younger brother.
Also major props to the Bryce Drew Valparaiso team of a year earlier that went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed, shocking No. 4 Mississippi with “The Shot” in the opening round, before beating Florida State. That Valpo team had so many great story lines — Drew playing for his father, Homer, and drilling big shot after big shot, including one of the most improbable, full-court inbounds plays in college hoops history; twins Bill an Bob Jenkins; foreign 7-footers Anatas “Tony” Vilcinskas (Lithuania) and Zoran Viskovic (Croatia) chief among them.
The University of Rhode Island team that ended Valparaiso’s magical run in 1998 also deserves recognition. The 1997-1998 Rams were one of the most fun teams I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Yes, they were a No. 8 seed, and thus in the top half of their bracket, and they came from the Atlantic-10 at the tail end of the league’s golden era when the A-10 was putting anywhere from 4-6 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But this was a URI squad that was overlooked and undervalued in its own league, and a squad that no one — and I mean no one outside of the that locker room — expected to go to the Elite Eight and be a minute and a half (and essentially a blown inbounds) away from the Final Four. The Rams were super physical and extremely talented, with 6-foot-5 power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean bringing toughness, intangibles and a heart the size of a basketball, playing alongside a dynamic backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and pint-sized Tyson Wheeler. But they were also selfless and a team that’s sum remained far greater than its individual parts.
However, my favorite Cinderella of all time remains the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts. Don’t get me wrong, the 04-05 Catamounts don’t have the NCAA Tournament resume of the teams listed above — they won a grand total of one game. But the Taylor Coppenrath/T.J. Sorrentine Catamounts will forever have a special place in my heart because they were a team that I got to know on a far deeper level than any other Cinderella. I watched the senior class that carried them from the time they were wet behind the ears freshmen (“puppies” as head coach Tom Brennan called them) to the final horn of their careers — a second round (back when the “second round” was the field of 32) loss to Michigan State.
The Catamounts had legitimate high-major level stars in Coppenrath, a 6-foot-9 backwoods Paul Bunyon of sorts who was country strong and could score from anywhere on the floor, and Sorrentine, a scrappy, smack-talking spark plug who played with crazy swag and had range from anywhere inside the state line. Both Coppenrath and Sorrentine were completely overlooked by the basketball establishment, and both used that to fuel them through their careers.
But the Catamounts were more than a two-man team (although both Coppernath and Sorrentine were completely irreplaceable) with the rest of the roster not only knowing and embracing their respective roles, but excelling at them (with players like Germain Mopa-Njila and David Hehn bringing tenacious defense and rebounding).
What was great about the 04-05 UVM squad was that they spent the entire season with a bullseye on their backs, not only in the tiny America East Conference, but on the national level, with feature articles in both ESPN the Magazine and SI, while also being followed around by a camera crew for ESPN’s “The Season” and playing in the marquee matchup of the inaugural Bracket Buster. And they responded every time.
Their 60-57 shocker over Syracuse was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever experienced, with the Orange selling out to stop Coppenrath and Sorrentine at all costs, and Mopa-Njila stepping up to have the best game of his career in the biggest game of his life (20 points on 9-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals). And, of course, there was Coppenrath knocking down the elbow jumper to force overtime and Sorrentine’s “nah, coach, I got this” shot “from the parking lot” to win the game.
The Catamounts were the ultimate underdog that grabbed their one, fleeting, shining moment. They were the embodiment of why I love March Madness. They also had an incredibly special meaning for me, as I had started watching Vermont with my father three years earlier (he was a big fan of the late Trevor Gaines and of Sorrentine), and had continued to watch them after he was killed in a car accident in January of 2004.
The year since had been one of the worst of my life, and following the America East had given me one final connection to him that couldn’t be severed by death or heartbreak, and the impact of Vermont’s win meant much more in keeping his memory alive than I can put into words.
I’m probably exposing myself as a young’n of the OBW staff with this pick, but I remember being completely encapsulated with the 2010-11 VCU team during my senior year at Stony Brook. I even used them as the subject of an assignment in a broadcast journalism class, having my professor pretend to be Shaka Smart while I interviewed her (I aced that assignment, by the way).
Shaka Smart just had this energy and swagger about him — it was fun watching a young coach, one who doesn’t wear a suit jacket during games as if it’s a fashion statement, running up and down the sidelines like a madman, something not normally seen from coaches on the big stage. The advent of the “First Four” that year seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it helped the Rams make history by being the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. Their wins over Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State were impressive, but when they ran into No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight, I thought, “There’s no way.” But then power forward Jamie Skeen dominated inside and outside (four three-pointers) against the twin towers of Marcus and Markieff Morris on his way to 26 points and 10 rebounds.
The other true Cinderella team during my college basketball fandom was the 2005-06 George Mason team, but all that team really did was make me want to set fire to my bracket and say, “Who the f— is George Mason?” I wanted to know who VCU was, making that Rams team my favorite Cinderella squad of all-time.
Binghamton has extended Tommy Dempsey through the 2018-19 season, the school announced Thursday afternoon.
Dempsey, whose five-year deal signed in 2012 was due to expire after the 2016-17 season, has compiled a 16-76 record through his first three years. Despite the mark, Director of Athletics Patrick Elliott has expressed faith in Dempsey’s ability to rebuild a program that won one game the year before he came over from Rider, where he went 119-105 and won a MAAC Coach of the Year award.
“Tommy has done a great job building a strong foundation for the future success of our program,” Elliott said in the school’s release. “I believe that it is important to ensure stability and continuity as we move forward over the next several years. With quality student athletes, a dedicated staff and our loyal fans, I am excited as our program takes the next steps forward.”
The Bearcats went 6-26 in 2014-15, battling back from Jordan Reed’s defection and Nick Madray and Dusan Perovic’s season-ending injuries to finish 5-11 in the America East. They took Stony Brook to the wire in a 62-57 loss in an America East quarterfinal.
“I am grateful to work for an administration that believes in our process,” Dempsey said. “We are working hard to build a program that the University, alumni and community can be proud of. I’m looking forward to being the leader of this program for many years.”
Every once in a great while, a basketball game would break out in the middle of an all-out brawl between Sam and Mike Rowley. It was clockwork-like a routine that began as young children in Sydney, Australia, and carried over into adolescence and on to young adulthood.
“You put us together and it was probably a recipe for disaster – you put us together in something where there would be a winner and a loser and it was going to be a fight,“ says Sam, 22, now a bruising 6-foot-6-inch 230-pound senior forward for NCAA Tournament 14-seed University at Albany.
“When we were younger we often would fight basically over everything because we were pretty close in age and really competitive,“ adds Mike, Albany basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch 230-pound sophomore forward, who is two years Sam’s junior.
“God do I feel bad for their parents,” laughs Albany head coach Will Brown. “Who on earth would want to get in the middle and try to break up a fight between those two?
These days, the brawling Rowley’s are fighting on the same side, and have helped to lead the Great Danes to their third straight NCAA Tournament — Sam’s third straight Big Dance and Mike’s second.
They’re having a blast doing it.
“Having a brother on the team is just one of the best things,” says Sam, Albany’s starting power forward, who leads the Great Danes in scoring (14.0 ppg), rebounds (7.7 rpg) and free throw percentage (.815) while shooting .511 from the floor.
“It’s really been a very fun experience, one that I’m really thankful for,” adds Mike, who has played primarily at the four and five positions, averaging 34 minutes, 3.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench.
“I really do think they are enjoying the fact that they get a chance to play together,” says Brown.
Not long ago, such a statement about the relationship between the two brothers would have been akin to heresy.
The brothers grew up in Sydney, Australia, as the youngest – along with Sam’s twin sister – of Catherine and Gregg Rowley’s five children. From a very young age both boys displayed athletic ability, and the innate ability to get under each other’s skin.
“The issue with Sam and Mike is they were overly competitive to a fault growing up, and that was why they could not coexist together in a competitive sports environment for more than 30 seconds or a minute,” says Brown.
“We weren’t very close growing up,” says Mike, adding, “there were definitely days when we needed to be anywhere but around each other.”
“We were quite close in age, so we were really competitive growing up and never quite saw eye to eye,” echoes Sam.
Basketball wasn’t the first sport for either, with Sam excelling in Australian football (AFL), and Mike emerging as a young star in rugby.
“My first sport was Australian football, and basketball was just sort of a summer sport. You had to choose a winter and summer sport, and I chose basketball because I didn’t want to spend my Saturdays, all day, out on an oval,” explains Sam, adding, “My brother was a really, really good rugby player. He was choosing between basketball and trying to make a career professionally in rugby.”
Playing different sports during the winter months, the brothers were able to generally stay out of each other’s way, but once spring rolled around and the two found themselves on the same court, all hell would break lose.
“We were too close in age, everything was too competitive, so we weren’t the closest,” says Sam.
“You can only take your older brother always thinking he’s right so many times,” laughs Mike.
Adding to the conflicts was that Mike always seemed to be following in his older brother’s footsteps, while perennially playing in his shadow. Sam starred at Knox Grammar High School, leading Knox its first Combined Associated Schools (CAS) championship in 14 years by totaling 21.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists, while also starring for the Australian U-19 team, winning a gold medal at FIBA Oceania Youth Championship in Guam, and starring on the international circuit.
Mike came into his own as a star when his time came, guiding Knox to a 41-6 record over his four years as a power forward, and averaging 23 points per game, 11 rebounds per game and six assists per game as a senior captain, while also excelling for the U-19 team. But his older brother was always there to take him down a peg – or keep his ego in check, depending on who you talk to.
“Big brothers have a way of always letting their younger brother know, no matter what we do, that they did it first and did it better,” says Mike.
“I thought it was important for Mike to not lose focus of how good he could be, and to keep him from getting big-headed,” says Sam, adding, “and if I happened to also point out areas I had done more in, then that was just a coincidence,” he laughs.
Sam signed to play for Brown in 2011, helping to usher in an Australian era for the Great Danes. And after spending his first season sitting mostly on the end of the bench, Sam came into his own as an automatic scorer on the low post with a plethora of low-post moves (“Crocodile rolls,” as Brown calls them), helping to lead the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore and junior.
When it came Mike’s turn to graduate high school, he had two big decisions to make. First, would he pursue rugby and turn pro, or basketball and head to the states and play college? And after he decided that hoops was his sport, where would he play?
“We had consulted mom and dad and Sam about recruiting Mike,” says Brown. “And originally Sam just shrugged his shoulders and I don’t think he was too keen on the idea, because of the competitiveness and the relationship being the way it was.”
Eventually, the older brother came around, but Brown and his staff still had to convince Mike, Catherine and Gregg.
“Mom and dad originally I think wanted them to go their separate ways. They didn’t want Mike to be in Sam’s shadow and the recognized the competitiveness that was in the household.”
Eventually, Mike decided to play with his brother and, according to all parties, it’s gone much smoother than anyone had imagined.
“Now that we came to college, we’re a bit older, and, yeah, we put up with each other a bit more so we’ve definitely gotten closer,” says Mike, who credits his older brother’s mentorship with helping him cope with living in a new country a world away from family and friends. “Whenever I need help, he’s there to help me out.”
“It was really nice to have Mike here as a teammate, and to really kind of get to know each other all over again as adults and become genuinely close,” adds Sam, adding slyly, “he’s matured a bit – thankfully.”
According to Brown, both players are invaluable and irreplaceable to the program, and while both have matured and mellowed a bit with age, a key to Albany’s sustained success has been harnessing and controlling their competitive nature with one another.
“In practice I try not to match them up against each other too much. It get’s overly competitive,” says Brown. “There will be days in practice when I think Sam needs to raise his level, and when I get upset with him, I’ll put Mike on him and I won’t give Sam any foul calls, and it gets overly intense. And then at a point where I think it’s about to get ugly, I’ll put someone else on Sam.
“I’ll do the same with Mike. If I’m not happy with Mike’s aggressiveness, I’ll put Sam on him and let him beat him up,” laughs Brown. “I know how to use that dynamic against them, but I don’t use it too much because I don’t want a fight in practice.”
As for fights, neither brother can remember the last one they had, but their competitive nature still sneaks out in other ways.
“I think the only issue is mom and dad bought them a car this summer,” says Brown, trying hard to hold back laughter. “They bought them a Cadillac, and the idea was for them to share it. But Sam has not let Mike drive the car yet, not once! I said to him, ‘Sam, when are you going to let Mike drive the car?’ and he said, ‘Coach, I graduate in May, after I walk the stage I will hand Mike the keys.’”
According to both brothers, the true growth of their relationship can be seen in the dynamic between the two in games, where, because they play the same position, usually only one will have a chance to star at any given time.
“It was a bit tough, because obviously you want Sam to do well, and when he was doing well it meant I wouldn’t play,” says Mike. “And when I would play it would mean that he was having a bad game or in foul trouble. It was kind of one of us would play well to the other one’s detriment.”
“I really developed a new respect for Mike, because, obviously with me being an upper classman, he’s kind of getting the short end of the stick right now, and he’s absolutely been terrific about supporting me,” says Sam, adding, “I honestly think he’s going to wind up being the better player out of the two of us when all is said and done.”
While their fighting days appear to be completely behind them, with both brothers now finally physically matured, who would win one final, no-holds barred throw down? Hypothetically speaking, of course.
“The older brother, absolutely, I would,” says Sam. “I’d have to find away. If Mike won the last fight between us, I’d officially be all washed up.”
Their head coach agrees when pressed on the subject.
“Mike’s still a puppy, and I gotta’ go with the older brother. I think if I locked them in a room and said one could come out, I think right now, Sam would come out, close the door, and say, ‘coach I’m out,’” says Brown. “But then he’d go back in and carry his brother out and say, ‘coach, I’ll take care of him.’ I gotta go with Sam, I think he’s the grizzly bear of the two.”
But Mike remains confident about his prospects of finding a way to win.
“Sam’s a lover, deep down,” Mike chuckles. “He would never fight me now. And I feel like if we fought, I would probably fight dirty, and I think I would come out the winner even though he’s a lot stronger than me.”
Now in their final semester together before Sam graduates, the brothers have been spending more time reflecting on their two years together, and both are extremely grateful for the experiences they have shared.
“I think there will be moments, where I do little stuff – not even basketball stuff – where we go out to eat and socialize, and next year without Sam it will feel strange,” says Mike.
“Looking back in 10 years it will be really awesome, and it is an awesome experience right now,” adds Sam.
Neither brother is ready for their career to end just yet, and after knocking off Stony Brook 50-49 in the America East championship game, both have their sights set squarely on pulling off the first NCAA Tournament upset in school history when they take on third-seed Oklahoma on Friday.
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
Call it divine fate. Call it karma. Call it as good as it gets. Just don’t call it a storybook ending.
In a storybook ending, Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue would have been sitting courtside when Hooley drilled the game winner to send his Albany Great Danes past Stony Brook in the America East Championship Game and on to a third-straight NCAA Tournament.
But this was as close to perfect it gets in real life.
“”When you have angels watching you, you can do anything,” said Hooley, referencing his mother, who died from colon cancer on Jan. 30, after hitting the game-winning shot in the final seconds of Albany’s 51-50 win.
With 6.2 seconds remaining and the Great Danes trailing 50-49, Albany junior wing Ray Sanders drover the lane, throwing up a wild, contested runner that missed the mark badly, hitting off the very top of the backboard, before falling into the fray below.
In the mad dash scramble, the ball was tipped out towards the perimeter, bouncing once and landing right in the hands of Hooley, standing at the top of key, two and a half feet behind the arc with 3.6 seconds remaining.
For the first 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds, the top-seeded Great Danes, hosting the championship game on their SEFCU home court, had been thoroughly outplayed by third-seeded Stony Brook, and Hooley had struggled mightily, hitting just two of his first 12 shots from the floor.
It had nothing on the struggle Hooley and his family had gone through earlier in the year, when Sue’s health took a turn for the worse and the Great Danes’ star – who also drilled the championship game winner last season to knock off the Seawolves – left the team to head home to Australia for three weeks to be by his mother’s bedside during her final days.
Hooley missed eight games during that stretch, spending what he estimated as 16 hours a day by his mother’s side ever day for three weeks until she passed away, before returning to rejoin the Danes as they made their stretch run during the regular season.
After finishing 15-1 in conference play, Albany looked as if they would fall victim to the kind of upsets they had pulled off in each of the past two years, when they made the NCAA Tournament as a four-seed, winning the championship on the home courts of Vermont and Stony Brook, respectively.
The Great Danes were outshot from both the floor and behind the arc in what was a defensive quagmire on Saturday (36.2 percent to 31.1 percent and 30 percent to 10 percent, respectively), but that all went out the window when the ball bounced into Hooley’s hands and he let fly, finding nothing but the bottom of the next with less than two seconds remaining for the win.
“We were just resilient. We battled and battled. It’s the best moment of my life. After everything I’ve been through, this was for my family and my mom especially,” said Hooley, who knelt by the scorer’s table alone weeping after the game, before being surrounded by his teammates.
With a the NCAA Tournament dreams dashed for seven of the America East’s nine teams, and a day remaining before the March Madness showdown between bitter rivals Albany and Stony Brook for all the marbles, One-Bid Wonders decided to take a look back at the America East basketball season that was in dunks. Take a look and enjoy — all nine America East teams and quite a few players are represented.
Who was the conference’s best dunker? What was the best dunk of the season? Leave us a comment below.
The final seven games on UMass Lowell’s season may have been the most important in their young Division I history.
On Jan. 31, in the final seconds of a 76-69 road loss at Binghamton, Jahad Thomas, the River Hawks leading scorer, rebounder, and team epicenter, crumpled to the ground, suffering a season-ending torn ACL.
At the time, UMass Lowell sat at 3-6 in league play and 9-13 on the season. Without their do-everything power forward, without the chance of a post season berth due to NCAA restrictions on schools transitioning to Division I, and with an roster that included eight freshmen, the River Hawks season seemed to be effectively over.
“It was a long bus ride home from Binghamton,” said River Hawks head coach Pat Duquette, who described the moment when the team received Thomas’ diagnosis as a “moment of prolonged silence.”
But Lowell responded by winning 3 of their final six, to finish 6-10 in the league (sixth place) and 12-17 overall, surpassing last seasons Division I record, with several previously unproven freshmen stepping up the share the burden of shouldering the load Thomas had been carrying all season..
“Jahad’s a guy that you can’t just replace with one guy,” said Brad Shaub, a freshman forward who averaged 4.7 points per game on the year, but 6.4 points over the seven games after Thomas’ injury. “He rebounds, he sets other guys up, he scores. He’s such a great player that one guy just can’t replace him.”
“Everybody knew how important Jahad was to us,” said Duquette. “Everybody also knew that we weren’t going to give up. So, we needed some time just to think it through, and then what our identity was going to be without him, and we all came to the same conclusion that nobody was going to replace him; that we were just going to have to all give a little bit more.”
With Thomas out, the River Hawks spent the final stretch of the season without a star or go-to scorer, but the loss may have forced them to become a more deep and diverse team, with freshman Schaub, point guard Lance Crawford and sharp shooter Matt Harris each elevating their games.
“Brad Shaub has not scored as much, but plays a ton of minutes in the front court for us and has a super basketball I.Q., and I feel that he’s made a ton of progress as well,” said Duquette.”
Crawford moved into a more prominent role at the point down the final stretch, and finished the year second on the team in scoring and assists at 9.7 points and 2.3 assists per game, while also shooting over 34 percent from behind the arc. Crawford exploded for a career-high 35 points against Maine on Feb. 28, setting a school Division I record.
“Lance Crawford is still learning how to play point guard at the college level,” said Duquette, “but it’s clear that he’s talented and is starting to get a better understanding for that position.”
While losing Thomas forced the River Hawks to adjust greatly on offense, it also forced them to adjust on defense, especially in the paint where, despite his pint-sized 6’2” stature as a power forward, Thomas strength gave him a large presence in the post.
“I think that’s a good thing that we haven’t relied on our size,” said Duquette. “We’re quick, we’re tough, we’re strong, we’re quick to the ball. We have to be that way to survive defensively, and I like the attitude that that’s helped create amongst our team.”
While the big guys on the River Hawks aren’t quite “big,” – at 6’5” Schaub was the tallest player in uniform to see meaningful minutes — they made up for their size in versatility.
“One of our biggest things that our forwards can do is coach gives us the freedom to pop and shoot three’s which, I mean, there’s not a lot of teams that do that,” said Shaub. “You only have maybe one or two guys, but coach gave a lot of us that freedom, and most of the time it’s just because he had the confidence in us and a lot of us are shooters. I mean, a lot of us have played the wing before. I felt comfortable out there, so I felt comfortable catching and shooting all season long.”
And while Thomas injury – his second torn ACL in as many years – is heartbreaking and the soon-to-be red-shirt sophomore remains the most important player for the River Hawks, playing without the young star may have led to a big growth spurt for the young team.
“I think it’s just going to open up possibilities for us,” said Shaub, “that we have guys that can play the wing and the forward. We’ll become more versatile. I think you’ll be able to run a lot of different sets, because we have three guys that all play the same position on the floor together.”
In anticipation of the America East championship and the start of March Madness, which tips off with top-seed Albany facing three-seed Stony Brook at 11 a.m. Saturday, OBW’s Sam Perkins linked up with Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo and the America East’s Jared Hager to take a look back a the season that was, before looking ahead to the championship game that will be.
The trio shared a great deal of laughs, as well as insider insight over the course of the night, with topics ranging from their overall impressions and biggest surprises during the regular season; thoughts on the change in the conference’s post season format, from a single-site tournament to a high-seed host playoff; the best game of the post season; and of course, detailed breakdowns and predictions of the big game itself.
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.
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?
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.
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.”