Over the past couple of weeks, the University of Maine men’s basketball team participated in their last four games of the season. As their season wound down and the conference tournament approached, these late-season games were crucial.
On Wednesday, Feb. 26, the Black Bears hosted the University of New Hampshire Wildcats for their annual Border Battle. New Hampshire played stellar defense, forcing 14 points off turnovers while holding the Black Bears to three points on forced turnovers. This, in addition to the Black Bears’ ineffectiveness beyond the arc, dragged Maine out of a contest that they were in until the final seconds. Combined, the Black Bears went 5-20 from range, while New Hampshire shot a modest 11-28, securing the Wildcats a 77-70 win.
During the first half, both teams traded baskets, with neither taking a significant advantage over the other. Maine’s fourth-year guard Sergio El Darwich continuously dominated the paint, while fourth-year Andrew Fleming controlled the passing game. The first half would end in a 33-32 Maine lead. The second half began similarly to the first, with neither team having any real answers to stop the scoring trades. This was until second-year guard Yagodin Mykhailo scored four straight free throws, followed up by first-year forward Radakovic Veljko making three layups in a row, giving the Black Bears the 51-43 lead. A pair of fast-break 3-pointers from the Wildcats and they were right back into the mix and began to slowly inch away with the lead as they started to hit their jump shots in rhythm. After a series of efficient shooting, the Wildcats took the 72-68 lead with less than a minute left. It would be too late for Maine to fight back, ending in a Black Bear loss.
On Saturday, Feb. 29, the Black Bears remained at home as they hosted the UMBC Retrievers. Maine quickly took over the game with dominance in the paint and forced turnovers on defense. The game would end in a colossal 74-48 Maine victory.
During the first half, both teams traded baskets and scored their points primarily from the perimeter, while additionally sinking the majority of the perimeter shots of the game. A forgettable contest from beyond the arc, both teams combined to hit a weak nine 3-point shots on 46 attempts, while their paint scoring accounted for the majority of the points for both sides. First-year forward Ingo Stephane and Flemming took over with drives to the hoop and jumpers, helping Maine take the lead at 31-20. During the second half, Maine continued to dominate as Flemming and Nedeljko continued to make perimeter shots combining for four threes and 16 field goals, with both players scoring over 20 points. This would result in a crucial Maine victory.
On Friday, March 3, the Black Bears traveled to take on Hartford in what would be a defensive showdown with both teams fighting hard to win their last game of the regular season. Maine would edge out Hartford 71-65 for the road win.
Maine set the tone early as Nedeljko hit a 3-pointer on their first possession. After going up 5-0, Maine went on a 0-10 scoring drought as Hartford hit multiple threes. Maine quickly cut down the lead and both teams started to trade baskets. Both teams continued to play stellar paint defense forcing perimeter shooting. The Black Bears scored the last six points of the half with back to back 3-pointers from Nedeljko to take a 35-20 lead. After half time Maine started to control the paint, forcing a 12-6 run. Both teams started to play with more aggression, forcing fouls and finding themselves at the free-throw line. Hartford forced some late points off turnovers bringing the score to 69-65 with 25 seconds left. It would be too late, as El Darwich hit both his free throws, ending the game with a 71-65 victory.
Cruising into the playoffs on a two-win streak, Maine secured the eighth seed, sending them to Vermont to face off against the first-seeded Catamounts. This matchup was another tough defensive battle, as both teams combined for 15 steals and seven blocks, and both teams traded small leads from little runs, fastbreaks, and a series of fouls.
El Darwich and third-year forward Nedeljko Prijovic led the Black Bears in minutes and were flying down both ends of the court, hitting jumper after jumper to keep Maine in the contest through the first half. Their efforts were valiant, but Vermont still held a lead of 35-26 heading into the second half. Vermont ran away with the contest from there, holding Maine to 15 points in the second half and winning by a final margin of 61-50.
The Black Bears head into the offseason ready to improve and are looking to find the missing pieces that got them off to such a slow start this season.