More than halfway through its America East schedule, the University of Maine men’s basketball team was 8-1 and appeared headed for the program’s first league championship.
Within a few weeks, the Black Bears had lost their momentum and were unable to re-establish the chemistry and execution that had put them at the top of the standings.
Coach Ted Woodward’s team saw its dream of winning a conference title end with Saturday’s quarterfinal loss to host Hartford. The Bears finished 15-15 and dropped eight of their last nine games.
Of those eight losses, four were by five points or less, including two in overtime.
Ultimately, the Bears didn’t get enough stops, grab enough key rebounds or hit enough clutch shots to pull out the close games in a competitive conference marked by parity.
Despite featuring the league’s most potent offensive squad, the Bears allowed 66.2 points per game on 42 percent shooting in league play. They became increasingly susceptible to the 3-point shot, giving up 8.9 per game on .375 shooting.
UMaine ranked 294th out of 336 Division I teams in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage.
Teams built off that dynamic by spreading the floor and achieving success attacking UMaine’s post players off the dribble. The Bears’ frontcourt regulars weren’t overly tall (around 6-foot-7) and weren’t blessed with quickness.
Since teams shot so well from long range, UMaine had to rely more heavily on man-to-man defense and less on its 2-3 zone, which contributed to their inconsistent rebounding. The Bears also did not have an intimidating shot-blocker in the paint.
Junior all-league guard Gerald McLemore demonstrated significant improvement on defense and senior Terrance Mitchell was another player who provided defensive intensity on the perimeter.
UMaine relied heavily on its seniors to set the standard for work ethic and intensity. Co-captain Troy Barnies of Auburn was the emotional leader and took his game to new heights, averaging a team-high 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds with his polished post moves on his way to first-team, all-conference accolades.
Sean McNally of Gardiner, a senior co-captain, also provided experience and poise (4.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, .545 field-goal percentage), but was hampered much of the season by an ankle injury.
Mitchell (9.6 ppg) was a force at both ends. It was his energy, attacking mentality and 3-point shooting prowess (.390) that often sparked the Bears’ most impressive offensive sequences.
McLemore was more of a quiet leader, but continued to diversity his game at both ends, showing improved defense, and wound up averaging 13.7 points on 38 percent 3-point shooting.
Junior transfer Raheem Singleton (8.6 ppg, 3.7 apg) was a dynamic spark with the basketball in his hands, but the point guard sometimes experienced turnover woes because of his aggressiveness.
UMaine received an instant boost in the paint from freshman center Alasdair Fraser (5.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, .548 FG pct.), whose presence proved crucial, especially with McNally slowed.
The Bears received plenty of contributions from a deep roster that also included sophomore forward Murphy Burnatowski (6.9 ppg, 3.0), who was inconsistent and wound up sitting out the last four games of the season.
Sophomore point guard Andrew Rogers (2.8 ppg, 2.3 apg) was a steady, stabilizing influence on the court, while senior small forward Malachi Peay (3.6 ppg) and sophomore forward Mike Allison (2.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) were regular contributors off the bench.
The Bears’ considerable offensive talents made them such a formidable ballclub.
Barnies was often able to dominate in the lane despite giving up inches to opponents, while McLemore and Mitchell usually rotated on the wing to provide a potent 3-point shooting presence. McNally and Fraser were strong around the basket.
Singleton was a threat both off the dribble and shooting from the perimeter, while Burnatowski hit some outside shots. Peay, Rogers and Allison stepped up when needed to complement the offense.
UMaine led America East, scoring 69.6 points per game on 46 percent field-goal shooting that ranked 58th in Division I. The Bears were especially dangerous in transition, but didn’t always rebound well enough to get into their preferred uptempo mode.
UMaine should return enough veterans to be competitive next season. McLemore, Singleton and Rogers are proven commodities at guard, while forwards Burnatowski, Allison and Fraser have played well in spurts, but now will need to become more effective and consistent.
Junior forwards Svetoslav Chetinov and Travon Wilcher, along with sophomore guard Jon McAllian of Bangor, also will have the opportunity to earn playing time with further improvement.
The Bears will welcome a recruiting class that has yet to be finalized. Kilian Cato, a 6-7 forward from Finland, and Xavier Pollard, a 6-2 combo guard out of Winchendon prep, are the two players who have verbally committed.
In the meantime, UMaine must develop motivated leaders as it works during the offseason to re-establish an unselfish attitude and and winning chemistry.