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College Basketball: UNH gets true test tonight

Special to the Union Leader

January 17. 2018 11:48PM
UNH coach Bill Herrion, shown during a timeout against the University of Albany on Jan. 6, and the Wildcats will face their biggest challenge this season when the defending America East champion Catamounts of Vermont visit Lundholm Gym. (Nicole Goodhue Boyd/Union Leader file)

University of New Hampshire men’s basketball coach Bill Herrion has said throughout the season that his team is better than the record indicates.

As the losses piled up, it seemed like that corner that the Wildcats were just about to turn might not come. Six straight losses in November were compounded by three single-digit losses in December. With the new year came league play in America East and a nine-point lead was lost against UMBC in the conference opener.

But the corner was turned a fortnight ago and the Wildcats look like a new team. Using a deep bench and strong play from its veteran leaders, the Wildcats have won their last three games, most recently a 74-62 wire-to-wire victory against UMass-Lowell on Monday. It was the second straight game in which the Wildcats never trailed.

New Hampshire now sits 3-1 in America East play and is finding itself on both ends of the floor.

“We’ve played a very difficult non-conference schedule,” Herrion said Monday night. “These guys are battle tested. Maybe that tough schedule is maybe paying off now in January in conference play.”

That non-conference slate included games at Texas, Florida and George Washington as well as home games against quality mid-major programs such as Boston University and Niagara.

Now though comes the biggest power played in America East: Vermont. The Catamounts come to Durham today having won 23 straight America East games and 30 of 31. Last year they went 19-0 in conference en route to the NCAA Tournament.

Beyond that, the Catamounts have had New Hampshire’s number for years. Vermont has won all but three contests between the two schools this decade and have won the last seven in a row. The teams last met in March, in the America East tournament semifinals, where the Catamounts took apart UNH 74-41.

UNH last beat Vermont on Jan. 22, 2015.

“We just got to learn from previous games,” sophomore guard John Ogwuche said after the Lowell game. “We lost in the semis last year and it’s been in our mind all year long. Defense comes first and offense comes from that.”

Senior forward Tanner Leissner, graduate student Jacoby Armstrong and senior center Iba Camara all played for the Wildcats the last time they beat Vermont with Leissner and Armstrong scoring 14 and 10 points, respectively.

“These guys are the measuring stick in this league,” Herrion said. “They ‘ve had our number. We haven’t had a lot of success through the years. We’re going to go home and start game prepping. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

The continuing maturation of young backcourt players like Ogwuche, who had a career-high 15 points against Lowell, and freshmen Josh Hopkins and Evan Horn has made the Wildcats a much more versatile team. Junior guard Jordan Reed, who has been in the starting rotation since last season, has been out the last three games with an injured ankle but is expected to be ready for tonight’s game.

The Vermont game is the start of a key weekend for the Wildcats which includes a visit from Stony Brook Sunday afternoon.

“I just think we have to take these games and build on it,” Leissner said. “We’re going in the right direction right now. We know the next few days in practice two of the best teams in our conference are coming to our house. We have to protect our home court.”