ORONO, Maine — There were plenty of reasons for University of Maine men’s basketball fans to look at Saturday afternoon’s home basketball game against the University of Albany with a sense of dread.
The Black Bears were 6-11 overall and 1-3 in America East play and had lost two straight, seven of their last eight, and four of six at home this season. The Great Danes were 11-6 (3-1 in AE play) and had won three straight, six of their last eight, and were 5-6 on the road.
Good thing Maine’s coaches and players were more optimistic…
The Black Bears played their best defensive game of the season, making seven of their nine overall steals in the first half, helping force the Danes into 18 turnovers, and scoring 29 points off those turnovers to upset the 2006 and 2007 conference champs 72-61 at Alfond Arena.
“We just did a good job playing defense together. We did a solid job on the ball, in help situations, and on the boards,” said Maine head coach Ted Woodward. “The biggest thing we did is make them work for their points.”
Maine used the zone defense that the Great Danes expected them to use, but they still shot 29.2 percent against it in the first half.
“We came in knowing they’d play 40 minutes of zone. If you play us man-to-man, we’re probably going to beat you,” said Albany coach Will Brown. “They executed their game plan to a T: Jumping jacks and a 2-3 zone, daring us to shoot the ball. Our effort was so poor, I’m not sure it would have mattered who we played. We weren’t going to win.”
The Bears used a 16-1 scoring run at the end of the first half to take a 32-20 lead into halftime and led by as many as 23 points in the second half before withstanding a late Albany run and notching their second conference win.
Albany used runs of 12-3 and 9-3 to shrink Maine’s lead to nine points with 1:10 left, but time was against the Danes and the Bears pulled it out despite hitting just two of six foul shots in the final 48 seconds.
“It might have been a combination of us attacking the zone and getting some easy baskets and them getting complacent with the big lead,” Brown said. “But the team that deserved to win today won.”
Senior guard Kaimondre Owes led the Bears with 20 points in 13 minutes off the bench. He also had two steals.
“He gave us a huge lift,” said freshman guard Gerald McLemore, who had a solid, all-around game with seven points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals. “I believe this is a huge win for us. This is the number one team in our league after they knocked off Vermont. It does a lot for our confidence.”
Not that the Bears were out on a ledge after two tough losses to Hartford and U-Maryland Baltimore County.
“We came out of our last two games frustrated, but we hadn’t lost our confidence,” Woodward said. “It’s a good young group, they’re growing up, and they recognize their potential.”
The Bears outshot the Danes 47.6 to 38.7 percent from the field and outscored Albany in two categories that have been weaknesses much of the season: bench scoring (22-13) and points off turnovers (29-18).
Maine committed 20 turnovers, but Albany was unable to fully cash in on them.
Sophomore forward Sean McNally of Gardiner had 14 points and six boards to help lead Maine inside and stalemate Albany in overall rebounds with 33 apiece.
“We got the ball inside early, and that not only got fouls on them early, it forced them to double-team me,” said McNally, who also had a game-high four blocked shots.
Albany did get 15 offensive boards to UM’s eight and outscored Maine 34-26 in the paint..
Maine sophomore guard Malachi Peay got his first collegiate start and finished with 11 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes.
“I’m just happy to be able to play and come in and help my team. It got kind of boring sitting on the bench and just watching,” said Peay, who missed seven games due to injuries.
Junior guard Mark Socoby had 10 points, six rebounds, and two steals.
University of Virginia junior transfer forward Will Harris finished with 20 points and eight rebounds while senior forward Brian Connelly wound up with 13 and nine, respectively. Tim Ambrose had 10 points and led Albany with four assists.