WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Troy Barnies has watched the results of recent America East men’s basketball awards ceremonies with a great sense of frustration.
Deep down, he knew he was as good as most of the players who stepped up to receive all-conference awards. He just had to be motivated to prove it.
This season, the University of Maine senior has made a believer of himself and all who have watched him with a breakout season for the Black Bears. Friday afternoon, he took his place among the conference elite when he accepted a plaque as a member of the All-America East First Team during the league awards ceremony at the University of Hartford.
“I’ve been around this league a long, long time,” said University of New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion. “His improvement is as impressive as I’ve seen over the course of his four-year career as anybody.
“The kid is a warrior,” he added. “I would love to have a kid like him on my team.”
Barnies, a polished 6-foot-7 forward from Auburn, leads No. 3 UMaine (15-14) into Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. AE quarterfinal game against No. 6 host Hartford (10-19) at Chase Family Arena.
The former Edward Little High School star spent his first three years at Maine as a role player. He rebounded, played defense, took player-control fouls and scored “garbage” points around the basket.
This season, Barnies has taken his game to another level. He leads the Black Bears while averaging 14.3 points, on 53 percent shooting, and 7.7 rebounds. He also is tied for the team lead with 26 steals.
In league play, Barnies ranks sixth in scoring (16.4 ppg), fifth in rebounding (8.3 ppg), second in field-goal percentage (.559) and fourth in minutes played (35.5 mpg).
“He’s an incredibly driven young man,” said UMaine coach Ted Woodward. “In anything that he does, he’s very competitive. He puts everything out there, whether it’s practice or game.”
Woodward said Barnies’ continued hard work on the court and in the weight room have played a key role in his seemingly recent improvement.
Yet Barnies said the biggest change has been a psychological one.
“It’s not like I’m a better athlete or a better shooter,” Barnies said. “I was probably just as good last year. I just never gave myself a chance.”
One dynamic that triggered his rise to all-conference status was knowing this was going to be his final season.
Rather than be satisfied serving as the role player he thought his coaches and teammates wanted him to be, Barnies suddenly felt a sense of urgency. He knew he would be counted on to produce.
“A big word, senior, in my head was the game-changer in the fact that I’ve been playing great this year,” he explained. “I didn’t have to worry about messing up, about playing time. I didn’t have to worry about not getting the ball, because I was a senior and experienced.”
The responsibility of being a senior leader was magnified when classmate and fellow co-captain Sean McNally of Gardiner suffered an ankle injury during a preseason game that severely hampered his playing time and effectiveness for an extended period.
“When he got hurt, I was like, I’m the only starter left over (from 2009-10) in the bigs (post players), so I have to really step up,” he said. “Who knows, if Sean would have been OK, if I still would have been as good as I have been this year.”
Barnies has excelled with his slippery play around the basket. While he often takes on taller defenders, he has developed an assortment of moves that enable him to get himself open for good shots.
He is quick, agile and patient as he effectively negotiates traffic in the paint.
“He’s a very difficult guy to guard,” said Woodward, who pointed to Barnies’ development of “immaculate” footwork as a key.
“He’s always able to get guys off-balance and does a great job pivoting, finding the open space. He has a great understanding about how to clear himself and take whatever piece the defense gives him.”
Barnies said football has always been his favorite sport. He played quarterback and safety at Edward Little and initially thought he would pursue football at the college level, rather than basketball.
UMaine recognized his talent on the court and offered him a scholarship.
“We loved his potential,” Woodward said.
Four years later, Barnies suddenly has hope he might be able to hook on with a pro team overseas after graduation and take his game to yet another level.
To accentuate how Barnies’ confidence has been so drastically transformed, even since last summer, he revealed he had a contingency plan.
“If I was going to have a bad year this year, a mediocre year like I did last year, I was going to consider staying another year and playing football,” Barnies said.
Throughout his career, Barnies has drawn strength from his family — including mother Lorie, dad Stanley and twin brother Travis — and his UMaine coaches and teammates.
Barnies is driven to help UMaine put together a strong postseason run.
“These four years I’ve given everything I’ve got to get to a championship game and we haven’t done that yet,” he said. “This our our chance, my last chance, so this is such a big deal to me.”