ORONO — The University of Vermont demonstrated Wednesday night why it is the America East regular-season champion.
The Catamounts exhibited outstanding offensive execution, aggressive man-to-man defense and strong rebounding while earning a 73-57 men’s basketball victory over the University of Maine at Alfond Arena.
Vermont (22-5, 13-2 AE) extended its winning streak to 10 games while avenging its loss to the Black Bears last month on its home court in Burlington. The Catamounts will be the top seed at next month’s America East tournament and also have locked up a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, regardless of their postseason finish.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play a great basketball game to beat them,” said UMaine coach Ted Woodward.
“They certainly played to their strengths and, unfortunately, we couldn’t quite match them in some of those areas.”
Despite its offensive execution, including 60 percent shooting (31-for-52), and a 34-20 rebounding advantage, defense was the difference for Vermont.
“I think that we’re a different team than we were when we played them the first time,” said senior Evan Fjeld, whose 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots paced the Catamounts. “Our defense is much better, especially our help defense.”
UMaine (14-12, 8-6 AE), which suffered its fifth consecutive loss, had difficulty containing a balanced and unselfish UVM squad.
“They were doing a great job running their plays, looking for different slips and twists,” said senior Troy Barnies of Auburn, who led UMaine with 16 points (14 in the second half). “Secondly, our defense isn’t up to par to where we want it to be right now.”
Vermont scored 38 points in the paint.
The Catamounts’ defense, mostly man-to-man, was solid. The Bears shot 42 percent overall, but only 30 percent in the second half. Brendan Bald (17 points) played a key role in shutting down UMaine’s Gerald McLemore, who had only two points and five attempts in the contest.
“To hold him without a basket in 37 minutes is pretty incredible,” offered Vermont coach Mike Lonergan.
Terrance Mitchell hit four 3-pointers on his way to 13 first-half points, but he finished with 14.
“I think their defense has really picked up over the last month,” Woodward said. “That’s really been the biggest key for them.”
Alasdair Fraser added 13 points for the Bears.
The Catamounts led throughout, but finally established a cushion with a 9-2 flurry early in the second half. Sandro Carissimo and Bald buried 3-pointers 30 seconds apart to make it a 12-point game.
Fraser responded with an offensive rebound hoop for the Bears, but a foul shot by Bald and Matt Glass’s 6-footer from the lane gave UVM a 51-38 lead with 15:34 to play. UMaine never got closer than eight after that and the visitors pushed the margin to as many as 16 points.
“I thought a key was we had 22 assists on 31 baskets and we’ve been doing a much better job the last couple games with our assist-to-turnover ratio,” Lonergan said.
UMaine returns to action Saturday with a nonleague game at Siena as part of the ESPN Bracket Busters tournament. The Bears aren’t panicking in spite of their recent struggles.
“We’re a mature team and we need to take care of business and we know that we have a big opportunity up ahead,” Barnies said.
“I feel like as a team our morale is high,” he added, “but we need to change a lot of things on the court.”
The Catamounts led only 40-34 at the break despite shooting 58 percent from the field (18-for-31) behind a 6-for-9 performance by Fjeld.
They were most effective inside, scoring 30 points in the paint on a combination of isolation plays and penetrate-and-dish sets.
The Catamounts also owned the boards, 19-7.
UMaine’s saving grace was Mitchell’s 3-point shooting (4-for-5). The Bears were able to capitalize on a handful of transition opportunities and effectively handled occasional full-court pressure by the visitors.
Vermont stretched its lead a bit with a 7-3 run during the middle portion of the half. It began after UMaine’s Mike Allison was called for “traveling” in an attempt to throw down a fast-break dunk.
The Catamounts capitalized, with Ben Crenca converting a conventional three-point play at the other end, resulting in a five-point turnaround.
Raheem Singleton answered for UMaine with a 3-pointer, but an 8-footer by Fjeld and a Brian Voelkel free throw made it 27-21 with 7:08 to play in the half.
Vermont led by as many as seven points.