WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - Junior Alvin Abreu (Lynn, Mass.) and sophomore Brian Benson (Rochester, N.Y.) each scored 13 points to lead the sixth-seeded University of New Hampshire men's basketball team to a 68-57 victory against No. 3 University of Maine in the America East Championship quarterfinal round Saturday night at the University of Hartford's Chase Arena.
The Wildcats, who improved to 13-16 on the season by beating Maine for the first time in three
tries, advance to the seventh semifinal in school history where they will meet No. 2 University of Vermont on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Bill Herrion, who recorded his 295th career victory, becomes the only UNH head coach ever to appear in three semifinal games, and just the second to advance to consecutive semifinals (Gib Chapman - 1994, 1995).
The ‘Cats, who have now won back-to-back quarterfinal games for just the second time ever (1994, 1995), earn their first tournament win against Maine in four tries, first win as the sixth seed in four tries and first win against the third seed in six tries.
The victory also boosted Herrion's America East tournament resume. Herrion, who is making his 13th appearance in the tournament, is already the all-time winningest coach in America East Championship history, but widened the gap with his 21st victory. Herrion upped his winning percentage to .700 (21-9), which ranks first among active coaches, first among anyone with eight appearances and sixth overall all-time. Herrion also improved to 19-10 (.655) all-time versus Maine, including a perfect 3-0 against the Black Bears in the tournament.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Herrion said. "They really fought, and they didn't back down. They were terrific, they really were. We beat a really good basketball team. We had never had a lead in 80 minutes of basketball against Maine this year in the two games, and they're really, really good."
Abreu shot 4-for-11 overall, including 2-for-5 from behind the arc, and was 2 of 4 in the second half. Benson, meanwhile, set a career high with the 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting, including 2 of 3 from deep. Benson also set a career best with the two 3-pointers and matched a career high by pulling down nine rebounds.
Sean McNally led the Black Bears, who finished their season at 19-11, with 16 points, 12 boards, three assists and two blocks.
UNH led 26-24 at the half as they improved to 13-2 when tied or leading at the break this season. Gerald McLemore kicked off the second-half scoring with a 3-pointer that gave Maine a 27-26 edge. Senior Colbey Santos (Onset, Mass.) answered back with his own trey, however, and the Black Bears would never lead again.
Maine did tie it at 29 with 17:51 remaining on a layup by Troy Barnies, but Santos' layup at 17:25 gave UNH the lead for good at 31-29 and sparked a 12-0 run. A Benson 3 opened the lead to five before sophomore Russell Graham (Norristown, Pa.) found junior Dane DiLiegro (Lexington, Mass.) down low for a dunk that made it 36-29 at 15:11. Another DiLiegro basket widened the advantage before Santos capped the run with another 3-pointer that made it 41-29 at 13:52.
Four straight points from McLemore would cut the deficit to eight, but a 9-0 run gave the Wildcats a 50-33 lead with 10:50 to play. A jump hook from senior Radar Onguetou (Yaounde, Cameroon) and a 3-pointer from Abreu opened it up to 13 before Onguetou made 1 of 2 at the line and freshman Ferg Myrick (Philadelphia, Pa.) drained a 3 to close the run.
With 8:56 left, a pair of Abreu free throws gave the Wildcats their largest lead of the night at 54-36, but a 10-2 run brought the Black Bears to within 56-46 at 5:07. An Abreu 3-pointer stopped the bleeding, but a 6-1 run from Maine made it an eight-point game at 60-52 with 1:47 to play.
UNH scored the next five points and the Black Bears would never come as close again. A 3 from
Murphy Burnatowski with 26 ticks left made it 66-57, but Benson fittingly capped the evening with an emphatic two-handed slam with 17 seconds to go.
Santos once again stepped up in a tournament game as he tallied eight points, three rebounds and a season-high four assists in a season-best 27 minutes. Graham, who ranks fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, scored six points, handed out four assists and did not turn the ball over in 20 minutes off the bench. DiLiegro recorded nine points and 11 boards, Onguetou chipped in with three points and four rebounds, and Myrick added five points, five boards, an assist, a block and a steal in 19 minutes off the pine.
McNally recorded Maine's first three field goals to help them take a 9-4 lead at 16:24. A DiLiegro basket cut it to three, but back-to-back layups from Junior Bernal and Barnies gave the Black Bears their largest lead of the night at 13-6 with 15:06 remaining in the opening half. A 7-0 run - sparked with an Abreu jumper and capped with a 3-pointer from junior Tyrone Conley (Burlington, Vt.) - knotted the game at 13 with 12:12 on the clock.
The two teams were still tied at 18 with 8:43 left when consecutive layups by McNally - plus the free throw to convert the three-point play on the second bucket - made it 23-18 at 6:35. The Wildcats then made their move, crafting an 8-0 run on baskets by Myrick, two from Benson, and Abreu, to grab a 26-23 lead with 1:38 to go. Bernal made 1 of 2 at the line to close the scoring.
Conley recorded nine points and two assists.
Abreu finished the night with 1,135 points and moved past Austin Ganly (1,127) for 15th all-time on UNH's scoring list. Graham, meanwhile, upped his assist total this season to 119 and passed Al McClain (1983-84 - 118) for seventh on the program's single-season assist list.
The Wildcats shot 41.1 percent (23-56) from the floor and 36.4 percent (8-22) from behind the arc, while their defense held Maine to 34.8 percent (16-46) overall and 25 percent (4-16) from deep. The defense also locked down McLemore, who scored seven points on 2 of 9 shooting after pouring in a career-high 30 points on 9 of 15 shooting in their last meeting Feb. 17.
"Our defense was terrific for the last 15 minutes of the first half and a majority of the second half - it was great," Herrion said. "Obviously [Gerald] McLemore is a terrific player and was great against us at UNH a few weeks ago, but we did a great job on him tonight."
The Wildcats held a 42-37 edge on the glass, saw their bench outscore Maine's, 26-15 and turned the ball over two fewer times than the 17 turnovers they forced the Black Bears into.
Terrance Mitchell added 11 points for Maine.
NOTES: UNH has advanced to three semifinal games in the last five years after playing in four the previous 26 years ... the Wildcats' four tourney wins in the last seven years are the most in any seven-year span ... No. 6 seeds have appeared in two of the last four championship games.