WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — In their two previous meetings with the University of New Hampshire, the Maine men made it look easy, virtually leading from start to finish and winning by 14 and 19 points.
It was anything but easy for the Black Bears Saturday night as the UNH Wildcats played tough, physical defense and simply beat the Bears at their own game en route to a 68-57 America East Tournament quarterfinal upset at Chase Arena.
Maine’s Gerald McLemore, who scored 30 points in Maine‘s win over UNH on Feb. 17, was held to seven in Saturday’s loss.
After a solid start in the opening five minutes, the Bears played like they were on their heels, frustrated, and confused as they were outrebounded, outhustled, and harassed into 17 turnovers leading to 16 UNH points.
“When you have that kind of physicality you’re playing against, you try to force some things and get frustrated,” said Maine head coach Ted Woodward. “When things aren’t going real easy for you or things are being taken away, you do have turnovers and I thought we got a little sloppier than we’ve been when things aren’t going our way.”
The Black Bears, who wind up their most successful season in 10 years with a 19-11 record, had scoring droughts of 5 minutes, 15 seconds late in the first half and 4:35 early in the second as UNH outscored them 23-6 to take a 12-point lead with 13:52 to play.
“Our focus was just to get stops. We know it’s all about our defense,” said junior guard Alvin Abreu, who led the Wildcats with 13 points. “They’re the most physical team in the league, I think. We get beat up like it’s a football game.”
Thanks to key contributions off the bench, it was the Wildcats who administered the bulk of the beating.
Sophomore Brian Benson, a 6-foot-9 forward — who didn’t play in the first game against Maine and played only 17 minutes in the second game — played 28 minutes and torched the Bears for 13 points while canning two of three 3-pointers. He also had nine rebounds and a blocked shot.
Not bad for someone who didn’t expect to play much, if at all.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t really expecting it, but coach [Bill] Herrion tells us every day in practice we have to be ready to play because you never know when you’ll be called on,” Benson said.
The Wildcats got 26 points from their bench as opposed to 15 by Maine’s. Sophomore Russell Graham had six points, four assists and two rebounds with no turnovers in 20 minutes off the UNH bench. After missing his first two free throws, Graham would go on to can six of 10 in the final 3:13 as Maine was forced to foul with a 12-point deficit.
After leading 9-4 and 13-6 early, Maine’s last lead of the game would be 23-22 with 5:27 left in the first half. The Bears would tie UNH 29-29 with 17:49 left in the second half and never get closer than five points the rest of the game.
“I don’t think we’d even had a lead against Maine in the previous 80 minutes and they got out of the gate quick against us today, pounding it down our throats, but we made some good defensive adjustments,” said Herrion, whose Wildcats improved to 13-16. “Our defense was terrific the last 15 minutes of the first half and the majority of the second half, it was great.”
The Wildcats also got great production from their perimeter shooters, canning 8 of 22 3-pointers while also putting the clamps on Maine’s, who went 4 for 16 from the arc. Sophomore sharpshooter McLemore, who led NCAA Division I with 100 3-pointers this season, was 2 for 7 on 3-pointers and 2 for 9 overall en route to seven points.
“They were very physical and making it hard to play,” said McLemore. “We got down on the post multiple times, but as far as getting perimeter shots, I do credit their defense for coming off screens with me, making good hedges, and staying on my hip.”
They stayed on another body part for Maine’s other big scorer: junior forward Sean McNally of Gardiner.
“In the first half, they were helping a lot on Junior’s [Bernal] and Terrance’s [Mitchell] drives inside so I was getting easy dish-offs and [a foul shot], but in the second half, they didn’t play help side like they did in the first half,” explained McNally, who had his sixth career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds, but only five second-half points. “They stayed with a hand in my stomach all the time and I had to work harder to get post position.”
McNally, who had 11 points and five rebounds in the first half, also had three assists and two blocks for the game.
Mitchell finished with 11 points on 1 for 7 shooting from the field.
The Wildcats outshot Maine 41.1 to 34.8 percent from the field overall.
Forward Dane DiLiegro had nine points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats.