ORONO — With first place in the America East standings riding on the outcome and the largest crowd of the season in the seats, the University of Maine men’s basketball team did not disappoint Saturday afternoon.
The Black Bears suffocated Binghamton University with their tight-knit defense and turned in a well-rounded offensive performance while cruising to a surprisingly easy 77-51 victory at Alfond Arena.
Coach Ted Woodward’s UMaine team (10-7, 4-1 AE) overtook Binghamton (6-11, 3-1 AE) for first place in the conference standings and won its third straight game and its eighth in the last 10 outings.
“I thought we had very good energy throughout our basketball team,” Woodward said. “Basically everybody had a good game on the same night, for the most part.”
A season-best crowd of 2,601 turned out for either the men’s contest or the UMaine-Binghamton women’s game played earlier in the day. The Bears fed off the excitement of the atmosphere.
“It was packed and that started off the energy in the beginning of the first half, which was nice,” said UMaine senior co-captain Troy Barnies. “Because seeing that many people there, you want to play hard in front of everyone, you want to show them how good you are as a team, and I feel like we did that as a team today.”
The Bears look to continue their momentum as they head on the road for Tuesday night’s key league clash at Vermont (12-4, 3-1 AE).
UMaine turned in a complete, two-way effort against the Bearcats.
It started on the defensive end, where the Bears effectively mixed a 2-3 zone and man-to-man strategies along with some occasional zone pressure. UMaine held Binghamton to 33 percent floor shooting, including 27 percent (7-for-26) in the second half.
The hosts also held the Bearcats’ assortment of 3-point shooters in check as the visitors hit only six of 26 (23 percent).
“We just really wanted to emphasize defense tonight, which we tried to show,” said UMaine’s Gerald McLemore. “We knew they were undefeated coming in as far as conference play and that’s their first loss in conference, so we take a lot of pride in that. We knew it was for first place.”
UMaine spotted Binghamton an early 9-2 lead, but dominated from that point forward. The hosts went on a 29-8 scoring binge during a 10-minute span of the first half while pulling out to a 43-24 advantage with 1:29 to play.
UMaine extended the lead to as many as 31 points (65-34) in the second half.
Auburn’s Barnies again was the pace-setter for the Bears. He scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
He was among 11 UMaine players to score at least two points.
McLemore tallied 15 points and freshman forward Alasdair Fraser provided nine points and six rebounds. UMaine shot 45 percent from the field (28-for-62) for the game, including 48 percent in the first half.
The Bears created some separation with a game-changing surge during the last 9 1/2 minutes of the first half.
Leading 21-19, backup forward Mike Allison helped spearhead the charge. He made a 17-footer, then sank a free throw before Raheem Singleton made a steal and scored a layup at the other end off a feed from McLemore.
McLemore then scored on a baseline drive to the basket and Allison followed with two free throws to give UMaine a 30-19 lead with 7:14 to play.
Jabbi answered with a 16-footer for Binghamton, but the Bears pulled away with a 13-3 run that featured six points from Barnies and five from McLemore.
The Bears outrebounded the Bearcats 43-34, outscoring the visitors 34-22 in the paint. UMaine registered 18 assists and made only eight turnovers.
“We were a very unselfish basketball team throughout the game tonight on both ends of the court,” Woodward said. “We helped each other out, played as a hard as we could for the minutes that we were in there. We really had a deep basketball team.”
Moussa Camara paced Binghamton with 14 points and five rebounds, while Chretien Lukusa tallied 10 points and six rebounds and Mahamoud Jabbi nine points and 10 boards. The Bearcats turned the ball over 13 times and shot 23 percent (6-for-26) on 3-pointers.
Binghamton was without leading scorer Greer Wright for the fourth straight game because of an ankle injury. Backup center Kyrie Sutton also missed the game attending to an undisclosed family situation.