ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men are getting downright defensive about their basketball season, and that’s perfectly fine with them.
For the second straight game, the Black Bears pulled out nerve-jangling win as a last-second shot missed the mark, this time for a 52-50 victory over Princeton University Monday night at Alfond Arena.
With four seconds left and Maine leading 52-48, Kareem Maddox scored and drew a foul on Maine’s Sean McNally. Maddox missed the foul shot, which found the back of the rim and the board and caromed off to the right — right into the waiting hands of Tigers teammate Nick Lake. Lake launched an uncontested 10-foot jumper, but the errant shot bounced off the rim as time expired.
“I believe wins like this are the result of one more year together. There’s a trust factor,” said Gerald McLemore, who led the Bears with 14 points, four steals, and three assists. “We’ve played a whole season and there’s way more trust and confidence in one another.”
The Bears used a gutty blend of man-to-man, zone and half-court trap defensive pressure to disrupt Princeton’s offensive flow as much as the Tigers were doing to Maine’s.
“They threw us off balance. We threw them off balance and both programs are very similar in ability, size and execution, but we had a shot right there at the end,” said Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson. “We did dig a big hole for ourselves, but we made a game of it.”
Maine survived not only on the strength of its defense, but also its foul shooting. The Bears canned 15 of 18 free throws in the final six minutes after getting into the bonus with 6:09 to play and nine of 10 in the last 2½ minutes.
“The big thing, consistency-wise, is our defense,” said Maine coach Ted Woodward. “Offensively, not yet, but I think our defense feeds into our depth and size and the guys are buying into it.”
It was Maine’s third straight victory and fifth in their last seven games as the 8-5 Bears head into America East Conference play.
Bears big men Murphy Burnatowski (11 points, five rebounds) and McNally (nine points, 10 rebounds) also provided key efforts.
“Not one player on our team is going to carry us to win every night. We can rely on multiple guys,” said McNally, a junior forward from Gardiner. “We had a lot of guys with multiple points and other key stats.”
Guys like senior guard Junior Bernal, who had nine points and six rebounds, and junior forward Troy Barnies of Auburn, who had five points and eight boards.
“They started tightening up their ‘D’ by taking it out further so we didn’t have as many shots from the perimeter, so we gave it to guys like Sean and Troy and myself down low,” said Burnatowski, who went 4-for-4 from the line in the last 55 seconds.
Princeton (7-5) was led by Douglas Davis (13 points) and Dan Mavraides (12 points, six boards).
Both teams combined for 34 turnovers (Maine 18), but the Bears had eight steals and outscored Princeton 15-6 in points off turnovers.
“Everyone knew it was going to be a low-scoring game. It was a grindout,” said McLemore.
Maine also outrebounded an equally big Tigers team 36-29 overall and outscored them 9-0 in second-chance points and 12-10 in the paint.
The Tigers sprinted out of halftime and outscored Maine 8-0 and cut Maine’s lead to one point. Maine scored five straight, but Princeton kept it close until the Bears used a 7-0 run to take a 10-point lead with 4:37 to play.
The Tigers would keep it close after scoring seven of the next nine points and the deficit ranged between three and seven points the rest of the way, but Maine
In the first half, Maine exhibited patience offensively and it paid off as the Bears shot 42.9 percent from the field, outrebounded Princeton 17-11 and took a 26-17 halftime lead.
As many ebbs and flow changes as there were in the game where sustained offensive tempo was nonexistent, the score was tied just once (3-3 two minutes into the game) and had just two lead changes. Maine held its lead for the final 35 minutes, 6 seconds of the game.