ORONO, Maine — Zone defense at both ends of the floor resulted in a grind-it-out pace Sunday afternoon at Alfond Arena.
With the University of Maine and Siena College locked up in that style of play, Justin Edwards and Xavier Pollard found a way to inject some intensity and excitement.
The defensive prowess of the dynamic sophomore guard duo sparked a quick-striking transition attack in the second half, propelling the Black Bears to a 72-66 men’s basketball victory over the Saints.
Coach Ted Woodward’s UMaine ballclub (1-4) earned its first win of the season with a strong two-way performance. The Bears snapped a 12-game losing streak against the Saints out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“It’s great to get a win, especially after losing a couple tough ones,” Pollard said. “Now we’ve just got to focus on the future and look forward and keep working hard.”
In the first half, the Black Bears rode the polished inside play of junior forward Alasdair Fraser (17 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocked shots) as they attacked Siena’s 2-3 and 3-2 zone defenses in the post.
After intermission, UMaine’s ability to make steals and force a faster tempo behind Edwards and Pollard meant the Saints (2-4) were often scrambling at the defensive end.
“On defense, if we can keep up our intensity, not gamble, we can get steals and that allows us to run the fast breaks and just get easy points,” said Edwards, who poured in 15 of his 19 points in the second half to give UMaine an emotional boost. He also had six rebounds and three steals.
“If we just lock down as defenders and get rebounds, then we can keep rebounding and keep scoring,” he added. “I think that creates a lot of energy for us and we’re a team that we run off energy.”
Edwards exhibited tremendous open-court chemistry with point guard Pollard, who finished with career bests of 15 points and 12 assists with three steals and only two turnovers in 35 minutes.
“We know each other’s game, which helps us a lot because we know what we can do and what we can’t do,” Edwards said.
Junior Jon Mesghna provided nine points and sophomore Kilian Cato added eight, while senior Mike Allison chipped in with four points and eight rebounds.
Evan Hymes led Siena with a game-high 20 points, while Rakeem Brookins provided 15 points and O.D. Anosike notched a double-double with 12 points and 20 rebounds.
Trailing 40-39, the Bears seized the upper hand, manufacturing a game-changing 19-5 run behind the efforts of Pollard and Edwards.
Edwards ignited the surge with a 3-pointer, then made a steal and scored off a bank-in shot on an alley-oop pass from Pollard.
Edwards kept the momentum going with a layup off a Pollard steal, then Kilian Cato made a 3-pointer that gave Maine a 49-40 lead with 13:33 to play.
“We just decided to play with a little more energy at the top, get our hands going, get in the passing lanes,” Pollard said. “We were not trying to give them too much and stay home.”
Hymes countered for Siena with a 3-pointer and two foul shots to make it a four-point game, but Pollard drained a 3-pointer and Edwards scored back-to-back buckets off turnovers, including an alley-oop slam from Pollard, during a 9-0 burst that extended the advantage to 58-45 with 8:16 left.
“X [Pollard] and Justin know the only way to get in the open floor is by playing defense and rebounding and just staying with the things that we do,” Woodward said.
“I thought we did a better job today of staying within our [defensive] structure,” he added.
Siena made a final rally as Hymes capped an 8-0 run with a 3-pointer to make it 62-57 with 4:39 to play, but the Bears held strong.
Pollard chased down the rebound of a missed free throw by Edwards and quickly fed him for a dunk off a baseline cut to keep the Black Bears in control.
Maine went 8-for-10 from the foul line the rest of the way to maintain the lead.
“I thought that the kids stayed after it, we just couldn’t get over that hump,” said Saints coach Mitch Buonaguro. “We couldn’t make that one play maybe to get it to two or three [points].”
The Saints capped the first half with a 10-3 surge during the last 2 1/2 minutes to take a 36-33 lead into the locker room.
Siena took advantage of its quickness in transition and off the dribble to get some close-range hoops and used zone defenses to prevent UMaine from establishing much offensive continuity.
The Black Bears shot a solid 45 percent from the floor behind the inside play of Fraser (13 points, 8 rebounds), but Siena outscored the hosts 10-4 from the foul line.
The Bears built a four-point edge behind the play of Fraser, who sandwiched a short jump hook and a 15-foot set shot around Poole’s runner from the paint to give UMaine a 26-22 edge with 4:51 left in the half.
Siena responded a few minutes later as Rakeem Brookins made one free throw and Poole sank two to kick off an 8-0 run. Hymes buried a 3-pointer off a UMaine turnover, then Brookins hit a 15-footer in transition to put the Saints on top 34-30 with 1:03 left in the half.