“Beach Night Money Madness” brought an energy and atmosphere Tuesday night that the University of Maine men’s basketball team isn’t accustomed to. Behind 800 plus students and 2,265 fans, the Black Bears rallied to overcome a nine-point, second-half deficit, defeating America East’s top dog University of Vermont 71-68 to improve their record to 3-3 in America East play and 8-11 overall.
The Black Bears — coming off a disappointing one-point loss to Binghamton University (3-16, 1-5 America East) and in the midst of a three game losing streak — showed great poise and determination down the stretch, using the raucous crowd to overcome a gritty Vermont team that fell to 12-7 overall and 5-2 in conference play.
“This is college basketball at its best,” said UMaine head coach Ted Woodward. “You can just go out there, you could feel the energy. That’s why home court’s so important in college basketball and we certainly appreciate it.”
Sophomore starting point guard Xavier Pollard — 10.1 points per game, 4.3 assists per game — was suspended from the game due to an internal matter, so the Black Bears’ starters logged heavy minutes. Five players totaled over 30 minutes of play, including Alasdair Fraser who played all 40. Sophomore forward Zarko Valjarevic got the starting spot and stepped up in a big way, filling in for Pollard. Valjarevic scored a career high 13 points on 4-12 shooting, getting 10 points in the second half and calmly knocking down two free throws with 9.6 seconds left, puttingthe Black Bears up 71-68.
“My teammates trusted me and I couldn’t let them down. I had to hit those two free throws,” Valijarevic said.
Vermont had a chance to run one more play, but the shot from Catamount’s junior forward Clancy Rugg — who had 21 points and six rebounds — at the top of the key came up short.
The Black Bears, who trailed for almost 15 minutes of the beginning of the second half, greatly improved their defense over the course of the game. The Black Bears held the Catamounts to 8-24 shooting in the second half including 2-8 from beyond the arc compared to 15-26 in the first half. UMaine took the lead for good with 5:17 remaining on a Fraser rebound. Fraser finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks and helped the Black Bears win the rebounding battle 36-30. UMaine also had 19 assists to Vermont’s 10 and shot 47 percent for the game.
“They beat us on the glass, they made shots when they had to, executed down the stretch, and took it to us tonight,” said Vermont head coach John Becker, who had to play without his leading scorer junior forward Luke Apfeld — averaging 10.3 points per game — who missed his fourth straight game due to a hamstring injury.
UMaine turned to its star, and America East’s leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, sophomore guard Justin Edwards to lead them down the stretch. An Edwards free throw gave the Black Bears a 69-66 lead, but Vermont quickly answered with just over a minute to play to cut it back to one; this would be the Catamounts’ last bucket of the game.
Edwards had to overcome a shaky first half during which he only had seven points and six turnovers. The second half would be a different story. In front of the large crowd, Edwards rallied his team with 15 second-half points to finish with 22, chipped in four assists, four rebounds and only one second-half turnover. The Edwards show started with just over 12 minutes remaining in the ball game. Edwards drove the lane, drawing two defenders before delivering a wrap around pass to Fraser who quickly re-directed it to freshman forward Till Gloger for the lay-in.
At the 9-minute mark Edwards scored seven straight points by repeatedly driving the lane, splitting Catamount defenders and finishing acrobatically at the rim.
“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t really had a big crowd like that, so it’s just amazing to play in front of our fans and get a win,” Edwards said. “Hopefully they’ll come out more.”
UMaine was able to mount its comeback from the penetration of Edwards, giving himself shots and allowing other shooters to get free. Down 54-47, with just over 13 minutes to play, Edwards drove and found Valijarevic for a corner three, sparking an 11-4 run for the Black Bears.
“I just kept driving, and the lane was open every time,” said Edwards, who made a point to push the ball.
UMaine traded baskets with Vermont in the first half, but trailed 41-36 at the break after a 13-4 Vermont run. Fraser showed his improved range, raising a couple of eyebrows as the big man hit two 3s and knocked down some deep 2s, finishing 7-8 from the field in the first half. Center Mike Allison finished with six points and 11 rebounds and Gloger chipped in five points in 9 minutes.
Vermont was paced by junior guard Sandro Carissimo who finished with 15 points and junior Brian Voelkel who scored six points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out six assists and had three steals.
Unfortunately, the momentum would not travel to Stony Brook as the Black Bears would fall on Saturday afternoon 79-69 to the Seawolves. Stony Brook now sits in first place in America East at 14-5 overall and 5-1 in conference. Fraser and junior forward Jon Mesghna would combine to go 4-20 and the Black Bears were unable to overcome a slow start, going 2-14 from the field and committing six turnovers in the first 8 minutes.
UMaine will resume play Jan. 30 at home in the Alfond arena against the University of New Hampshire.