The Binghamton men’s basketball team faced off against New Hampshire in the first round of the America East [AE] conference tournament on Sunday. The No. 6-seeded Bearcats pulled off a narrow victory, as they downed the No. 3 Wildcats in a competitive battle that ended with a 72-69 finish.
“[We’re] excited to have an opportunity to get a playoff win,” said Binghamton head coach Levell Sanders. “I’m proud of the guys for how they played … We did a really good job of communicating and I thought everybody contributed in some kind of way. So [we’re] just happy that we were able to survive and advance.”
This marked BU’s (12-16, 8-10 AE) third time seeing UNH (15-13, 10-8 AE) this season. After losing to the Wildcats in their two regular season matchups, the Bearcats entered the playoff game looking for redemption. Sanders credited the team’s rebounding effort in the paint as a focal point in their victory.
“Both times [UNH] beat us was the same thing where we let them get second chance points,” Sanders said. “They always had double-digit second chance points. So, we had a big emphasis on trying to rebound the ball. We wanted to hold them to eight offensive rebounds, not more. That’s the number we gave up. I think they only had seven second chance points so that was a big key to us being successful.”
The competitive nature of the game started immediately after the opening tipoff. Both teams traded buckets, and neither was able to pull away with a lead larger than three in the first five minutes of action. Senior guard Christian Hinckson helped Binghamton spark its hot start as his two early 3-pointers opened up the offense for other opportunities. The senior scored BU’s first nine points of the contest. A jumper by sophomore guard John McGriff at the 11:38 mark gave the Bearcats an eight-point lead, the largest advantage either side would see in the game.
“It was a total team effort,” Sanders said. “[Hinckson] started us off well early in the game which is important. He settled us down … [Hinckson] coming out, making those threes really gave us the opportunity to settle down a little bit.”
Despite the hot start, an eight-point run by UNH quickly diminished the BU lead and tied the game at 20 with 9:40 remaining in the half. Another stretch of back-and-forth scoring kept the game in reach for both sides, but it was Binghamton who entered the half with a 36-34 lead.
“When we needed to make timely plays, we were able to do that which we haven’t been able to do in our last few games,” Sanders said. “More importantly, I think staying together was a big emphasis and I really thought we did that. I thought we played together.”
In the second half, the Bearcats trailed 54-49 with under 10 minutes left to play before a 13-1 run led by junior guard Jacob Falko allowed them to take the advantage and keep it for the remainder of the game. The game marked Falko’s return to action after missing two matchups due to injury. His 13-point contribution in the second half helped earn BU its second semifinal appearance in the last four years.
“[McGriff] did a really good job with distributing the ball today,” Sanders said. “[Falko] coming back helped us, gave us some confidence and he was able to come out there and perform.”
McGriff dished out six assists in the victory, but his final contribution came when he dropped in a jumper with 30 seconds remaining to give Binghamton a 72-69 lead. The Wildcats had an opportunity to send the game to overtime in the next possession, but an offensive foul was called that negated the game-tying 3-pointer by the home team. After, a missed free throw by Falko allowed UNH one last chance to extend the match, but the hosts were unable to convert at the buzzer, allowing the Bearcats to advance to the semifinals.
“I thought we showed a lot of heart,” Sanders said. “[UNH] missed a lot of free throws and missed a lot of shots. But that’s part of executing, it’s on them to make those plays and they didn’t make them.”
Falko’s 21 points led the BU charge in the victory, but the team had contributions from multiple players. Junior guard Tyler Bertram nailed three 3-pointers and Hinckson pulled down 12 defensive rebounds to keep UNH off of the offensive glass.
Binghamton’s second round playoff matchup is scheduled against No. 1 Vermont. The Catamounts beat NJIT 98-59 in their quarterfinal matchup and have beaten the Bearcats in both of their regular season games.
The game against Vermont is slated for Wednesday, March 9. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at the Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont.