BANGOR — To the casual fan, it was just another early-season nonconference game.
For Husson University and Saint Joseph’s College, it was the annual renewal of a rivalry that was once unparalleled in Maine small-college basketball circles.
Sophomore center Marc Zaharchuk of Richmond scored 10 points in the last 8:18 Wednesday night, providing a potent paint presence that helped the Eagles pull out an 81-78 victory at lively Newman Gymnasium.
It was an entertaining contest befitting the hotly-contested series between the two programs. Husson is now in the North Atlantic Conference, while Saint Joseph’s is a member of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference.
“We talk about the rivalry, the history,” said coach Warren Caruso, who played for Husson against Saint Joseph’s when both teams were in the same conference. “It’s very relevant to both of our alumni and we’ll continue to play this game. How could you not? You want to play in this atmosphere as often as possible.”
The 6-foot-9 Zaharchuk finished with 20 points and seven rebounds to complement the versatile and dynamic play of senior forward Josh Jones of Jefferson, who connected for a game-high 25 points and led all rebounders with 12.
“Josh Jones was 10-for-20 from the floor — 25 points, 12 rebounds. He made some huge shots,” said Monks coach Rob Sanicola. “Then the sophomore Zaharchuk, he’s a big kid inside and that’s what you want your big guys to do: Keep it high, finish at the basket.”
Husson prevailed despite foul trouble incurred by leading scorer Jay Uhrin of Winterport, played only 29 minutes, and Zaharchuk (24 minutes).
The Eagles were able to pound the ball inside much of the second half and capitalized with high-percentage shots and 11-for-15 free-throw shooting. Zaharchuk was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line.
“That’s the way we want to play,” Caruso said. “We really want to get the ball inside and Marc and Josh both did their job of getting the ball in good positions.”
Jones rebounded effectively to spearhead Husson’s 40-31 edge, but also gave the hosts another perimeter scoring threat. He went 4-for-6 from the 3-point line for the Eagles, who shot 47 percent overall.
Saint Joseph’s also encountered foul difficulties, but hung tough thanks to its offensive prowess and balance. The Monks went 10-for-21 on 3-pointers, making five in each half. They shot 45 percent from the field.
“A lot had to do with momentum, a lot had to do with heart,” Jones said. “Our fans were in it, our bench was in it. That gave us the edge to keep going.”
Jones broke a 75-75 tie with an 8-foot fallaway shot from the lane with 2:09 to play. After the teams traded turnovers, the Monks’ Zach O’Brien (20 points, 5 assists) missed a 16-footer and the Eagles rebounded.
Husson made it 79-75 on Zaharchuk’s rebound hoop, then Jones answered a Saint Joseph’s miss with a free throw. Tyler Kelley (12 points) swished a 3-pointer to make it 80-78 with 18.2 seconds left.
The Eagles got one foul shot from Eric Modica (9 points, 5 rebounds) with 16.5 to play, before Kelley’s 25-footer missed as time expired.
“We just played with more heart today,” Zaharchuk said. “We wanted it more.”
Husson, which never trailed by more than five points, made a key run with the score knotted at 60.
Zaharchuk ignited the 9-2 burst with back-to-back hoops from down low, then Jones drove in for a reverse baseline layup to put the Eagles on top 66-60 with 6:54 left. Anthony Savino (10 points) countered with two foul shots for Saint Joseph’s, but Luis Medina’s 3-pointer off a Jones assist made it a seven-point game.
“Luckily, we had a big presence inside (Zaharchuk) and were able to work with him and he went off,” Jones said.
Uhrin contributed 11 points and Medina added seven points and six assists for the Eagles.
Chris Petzy provided 15 points and five rebounds and Anthony Savino added 10 points.
Sanicola, who experienced the rivalry as a player for Saint Joseph’s, said he’ll spend a lot of time on the phone Thursday.
“We’ll have 15, 20, maybe 30 calls from alums asking about the game,” Sanicola said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t get to play (again) until next year.”
Little was decided during a physical, defense-oriented first half, but the Eagles emerged with a 34-32 lead.
Saint Joseph’s took the upper hand early with a 9-0 scoring run that gave it a 14-9 edge, but Husson responded with a 13-1 surge that put the Eagles in front 22-15 with 7:58 left in the half.
Jones paced the hosts with 11 points, including three 3-pointers, and 11 rebounds. Uhrin added nine points.
The Monks got 10 points from Petzy and seven from O’Brien.
Both squads did a solid job of protecting the paint, but neither was able to convert many of its opportunities. Husson outrebounded Saint Joseph’s 23-17.
Husson gained some confidence behind a balanced offensive spurt. Modica got things started with a steal and layup, then Uhrin drove in for a baseline layup off another Monks turnover.
James Philbrook snuck in a free throw for Saint Joseph’s, but Jones drained an 18-footer, Medina scored from underneath off a nifty feed from Uhrin after a Tim Hughes steal, Jones drained a 3-pointer and Hughes sank two foul shots to put the hosts on top 22-15.
The teams ground it out most of the way, with neither able to establish any consistent offensive flow.