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Big-thinking UNH men’s basketball handles Dartmouth

UNH forward Ferg Myric pushes Dartmouth guard Alex Mitola behind him as he surges towards the basket during the UNH at Dartmouth Men's Basketball game on November 13, 2012. 
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

UNH forward Ferg Myric pushes Dartmouth guard Alex Mitola behind him as he surges towards the basket during the UNH at Dartmouth Men's Basketball game on November 13, 2012. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

HANOVER – The season’s big picture goals are essentially the same for state’s two Division I men’s basketball teams, New Hampshire and Dartmouth. Both are trying to escape ruts that have been years in the making.

The Wildcats want to avoid more mediocrity, push above the .500 mark for the first time since 1994-95 and maybe, just maybe, challenge for an America East title. Dartmouth is trying to climb from the Ivy League cellar into respectability and hoping to avoid a fourth straight five-win season in the process.

The two teams both won their season openers and both were on the Leede Arena floor last night at Dartmouth. The Big Green (1-1) couldn’t follow up its win over Maine with another upset against an AE opponent, but UNH (2-0) did take another step forward in its development with a 72-58 decision.

“If you’re going to be good at any level, you have to be able to go on the road and win,” said Bill Herrion, now in his eighth year as New Hampshire’s coach. “I know it’s still early, but I think we have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team.”

Defense has been the calling card for Herrion at UNH, and this year should be no different, especially if last night is any indication. With guards Chandler Rhoads and Jordon Bronner pressuring the ball and the New Hampshire big men guarding the rim (center Chris Pelcher and forward Ferg Myrick each had two blocks), the Wildcats held Dartmouth to 16-for-60 shooting, a measly 26.7 percent. It was a far cry from the 44.9 field goal percentage and 67 points the Big Green put up against Maine.

“Defense is the heart and soul of our program,” said Rhoads, one of New Hampshire’s three senior captains along with Myrick and Chris Montagrano. “That’s what we want to hang our hats on.”

“You’ve got to give UNH a lot of credit, they did a good job defensively and they took us out a lot of stuff we wanted to run,” said Dartmouth Coach Paul Cormier, the former Concord High coach (1975-78) now in his third year in his second stint with the Big Green. “They’re a much better defensive team than Maine and they have much more depth than Maine … and they’re depth wore us down and I think we also just got out-toughed.”

While defense has been a constant, offense has been a problem in recent years for New Hampshire, which tied for fifth in the league last year at 13-16 and was picked to finish fifth again in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Wildcats have struggled to get easy shots and shot just 40.1 percent from the floor last season. Herrion hopes to find some easy points this year by getting his team in transition when possible and pounding the low post in the half court. Last night, especially in the second half, the Wildcats did both.

UNH held just a 29-26 lead after a disjointed first half, but that margin grew steadily in the second half when the ‘Cats stuck with their offensive game plan. A transition 3 from Myrick (game-high 19 points, 11 rebounds) and a pair of free throws after a fast break Rhoads (14 points, six rebounds, three assists) pushed the lead to seven, and after a bucket in the paint from Patrick Konan (14 points, 11 rebounds), the advantage was a comfortable 39-29 with 14:04 on the clock.

Dartmouth hung around behind a team-high 17 points from freshman point guard Alex Mitola, who is one of two freshmen starters for the ultra-young Big Green (the other three starters are sophomores). But big man Gabas Maldunas, who had 25 against Maine, was shut down by New Hampshire double teams, and every time the Wildcats needed a bucket to hold off a Dartmouth run, they found one on the fast break or by going inside to Myrick, Konan or Pelcher (nine points, nine rebounds).

“We’ve never really been a team that has had the ability to go inside, we just haven’t had the personnel, but we think we have it now. And we think we have the bodies to run, as well,” Herrion said. “Probably the most impressive thing about this win for us is we won by 14 on the road and only took 11 3s. We’re usually a team that’s walking out of here with 25-30 3-point attempts.”

It may have been an ugly night for Dartmouth, but there were some positives. Mitola showed the confidence to keep shooting despite going 1-for-8 in the first half. Malik Gill, another of the eight freshmen on the 15-man roster, provided an emotional lift off the bench with seven points and two steals in 17 minutes. And sophomore Jvonte Brooks (10 points, 11 rebounds) displayed leadership and toughness playing through an injured ankle.

If Cormier can get more of that grit from his young team, the Big Green should improve on the 5-25 mark it posted last year, and the 5-23 records it had the previous two seasons, and it might not finish last in the Ivy again, as the league’s preseason coaches poll predicted.

“The team that wanted it more tonight got the win,” Cormier said. “We’ve got to do something to get these kids to understand how hard they have to constantly play, not just in game but in practice, too. We’ve got to create more of an environment that way, so we’ll go back to the drawing board and try to do that.”

It will take work to make those changes, something Herrion knows all about, but the UNH coach believes his counterpart in Hanover has a team capable of moving forward.

“They’re young, they’re going in the right direction and Paul’s got some really good young talent,” Herrion said. “They’re going to beat some people.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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