Junior Bernal can’t help but chuckle a bit when asked about the big contributions made by the freshmen and junior college transfers on the University of Maine men’s basketball team.
“It’s kind of funny because I can see myself the way I was when I started here and it seems a lot like them,” said UMaine’s lone senior. “I really liked the guys and I felt like it was a good fit for me.”
The Black Bears’ starting point guard does a lot for the Bears, from running the offense to attacking the boards to providing leadership.
The Bears are 13-6 overall and — more importantly — 5-1 and tied for first place in America East as they prepare to face conference nemesis Boston University in a 7:30 game at Alfond Arena tonight.
For a player who has seen his team go 9-21, 7-23 and 12-18 the last three seasons, this season has been a welcome change.
“Winning’s always fun. I’m definitely enjoying this season a lot and playing with the guys we have,” said the 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard. “The guys this year have bonded really well.”
This is Maine’s best start since the Bears went 12-4 and 15-6 in the 2000-01 season. It’s also the best start to the conference season for the Bears since they won seven of their first nine conference games in 2001.
“I think confidence in ourselves and each other is the big thing, especially since we have some new guys on the team who have stepped in and contributed,” said Bernal.
Head coach Ted Woodward says Bernal is a big reason those new faces have been such immediate contributors.
“I’m sure it’s certainly had an influence with that. He does whatever he can to help the team win,” Woodward said. “His example out there is something I’m sure the new guys follow. Everyone looks up to him on and off the court.”
Bernal, who earned his degree in child development and family relations in December, leads more by example than vocally, but when he speaks, teammates listen.
“He’s one of those guys who leads by example. He plays hard and works hard and the last three years I’ve been here, he’s always been one of our top defenders,” said junior forward Sean McNally. “When I first got here, he showed me the ropes, on and off the court, and taught me a lot about what it takes to succeed at this level.
“Coach uses Junior as an example for a lot of us to follow on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, we kind of joke about it with him a lot.”
The son of Dancalis Garcia and Luis Bernal has been in Maine eight years since moving from Manhattan, N.Y. He won tournament MVP honors while leading Hyde School of Bath to the Western Maine Class D championship game before attending Maine Central Institute for one year of postgraduate ball as a point guard.
Bernal has obviously adapted to the rigors of the point guard position, recently becoming the 10th player in program history to total 300 career assists.
“I play point guard, but I know there are many things I’ll have to do. I just try to do a little bit of everything,” said Bernal who is now taking graduate courses..
Bernal is currently averaging 8.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, making him Maine’s top assists and steals man, No. 3 rebounder, and No. 4 scorer.
“He does a lot of different things for us and has been a huge part of our success,” Woodward said. “He’s running the show offensively and getting the ball to the right spots, he’s rebounding very well, and he helps us execute on both ends of the court.”
Bernal just knows he’s doing whatever he can to help the Bears to his and their ultimate goal: an America East tournament title and an NCAA Tournament spot.
“This season, definitely winning it all would be great, but I haven’t really thought about it because we’ve still got a lot more games,” he said.