ALBANY — Jamel Horton made two final free throws to seal the win, then saw teammate Tairi Ketner motioning for him to substitute out from the game. As Horton headed toward the sideline, the SEFCU Arena crowd cheered the senior who had delivered on senior day and earned an embrace from his first-year head coach.
“What I’m hoping everybody understood is that kid just played his heart out,” UAlbany head coach Dwayne Killings said of the early exit he engineered for Horton, “and I thought people got it, and people clapped for him and acknowledged him. And I wanted to make sure that I [gave] him a hug and [said] I was proud of him.”
In a 70-65 win that Horton made sure the Great Danes took from their Saturday matchup with New Hampshire, the 6-foot-4 senior guard registered a career-high 24 points, plus five rebounds and three assists.
“We couldn’t handle Horton,” said New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, who is in his 17th season leading the Wildcats. “But that’s what seniors do. That’s what good seniors do on senior day. I’ve been through enough of these senior days in my career.”
Horton only made 7 of 18 shots from the field, but kept working his way to the foul line in the America East Conference game’s pivotal minutes. Horton was fouled a game-high nine times and made 9 of 11 free throws, with all of those trips to the foul line coming in the final 5:13 of a game that never saw either team lead by more than six points.
“It just felt right. Like, the whole day, the whole game,” Horton said of his performance. “It just felt like it was supposed to play out this way.”
In a game that included 14 lead changes and nine separate ties, UAlbany (8-7 league, 12-15 overall) led New Hampshire (7-8, 12-12) 33-32 at halftime. The final 13:25 of action saw the teams only separated by more than a one-possession advantage on two occasions, when Chuck Champion made a layup with less than 40 seconds to go to put UAlbany up 68-64 and when Horton made his final two free throws with 1.3 seconds left.
Horton had scored nine consecutive points for UAlbany before Champion’s basket, which was scored off an assist from Paul Newman.
“I just said to Jamel, ‘I’m going to put the ball in your hands every possession down the stretch, and you’re going to drag us through it,’” Killings said.
Following Champion’s score off a backdoor cut with 39.4 seconds left, Guadarrama — who scored a career-high 32 points against UAlbany earlier this season — was fouled, and made 1 of 2 at the foul line to bring New Hampshire within 68-65 with 28.7 seconds to go.
Horton missed two free throws on UAlbany’s ensuing possession, but the Great Danes’ defense took over from there. After New Hampshire’s Jayden Martinez missed a 3-pointer, the Wildcats maintained possession when the ball went out of bounds off UAlbany with 2.2 to go, but New Hampshire was unable to inbounds the ball as the UAlbany defense forced the visitors into a 5-seconds violation.
Horton was immediately fouled on UAlbany’s next play, and he sank two final free throws to send the Great Danes into a three-way tie for the conference playoffs’ No. 2 seed with three games to go.
UAlbany honored six players on senior day: Champion, Matt Cerruti, Jarvis Doles, Horton, De’Vondre Perry and Newman. They were honored before the game, and Horton had a message for his teammates in the locker room after that ceremony.
“He said, ‘That’s over. Let’s get to work,’” Killings said. “I thought he was just ready to go, so I figured he was going to be the guy — and he was the guy.”
Horton’s previous career-high was 23 points and he had never taken more than eight free throws in a game.
“It was nothing I was seeing specifically,” Horton said of his late-game effort to get to the foul line. “It was just: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I just felt that I kept getting to my spots, kept getting to the basket, getting to the line. So I just wanted to stay aggressive.”
Martinez matched Horton’s 21 points, while Guadarrama added 17 for New Hampshire. UAlbany received 13 points from Cerruti, while freshman Justin Neely added seven.
The teams were both 13 of 19 from the foul line and shot near-identical percentages from the field, with New Hampshire making 46.9% of its shots and UAlbany making 46.4%, but the Great Danes committed a season-low two turnovers to New Hampshire’s nine. The teams also each had 30 rebounds.
UAlbany next plays Wednesday at Maine. Before that, the Great Danes will savor a hard-fought win — especially Horton.
He played junior-college basketball at Pratt Community College in Kansas before making it to UAlbany last season, and starring on senior day for a Division I program was “one of those moments you think about as a kid” for the guard from Queens.
“It honestly feels like it was supposed to play out that way. I didn’t see it that way. When I was out in Kansas playing JUCO, I was kind of wondering, like, ‘Why me? Why can’t I be a Division I player right away — but everyone’s path is different,” Horton said. “So, now that I’m here, looking back on it, that was a blessing. I learned from that. I got better. And, like I said, it just feels right. I feel like I was supposed to be here, at this time — not when I wanted to be there. So I’m just happy to be here. Just cherishing the moment, honestly.”