ORONO, Maine — It isn’t often a basketball team ranked in the top 50 makes an appearance at Alfond Arena.
Florida Gulf Coast University likely departed Alfond Arena wishing it hadn’t been the most recent squad to do so.
The University of Maine men turned in a focused defensive effort Saturday afternoon and gave fans with an unexpected Christmas present — an 84-78 victory.
Coach Ted Woodward’s Black Bears (4-8) demonstrated their tenacity while snapping a four-game losing streak against a highly-regarded opponent.
Florida Gulf Coast (8-5) arrived in Orono at No. 43 in the Division I Rating Percentage Index (RPI) and was ranked among the top 50 by seven different entities. Maine is ranked No. 308 in the RPI.
“That’s an awfully good basketball team and obviously it’s a very good win for our program, especially going on break,” Woodward said. “I thought we got a lot of contributions, a lot of contributions.”
The Black Bears didn’t sit around to enjoy the performance as many of the players made hasty departures.
“It’s going to be a much more fun plane ride home now that we got a win,” said junior Alasdair Fraser, who lives in Scotland. “It’s always good to get a win just before you go away for break.”
The UMaine effort was spearheaded by sophomore guard Justin Edwards, who scored a game-high 27 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and contributed five assists, three steals and a blocked shot.
Fraser registered 21 points and seven rebounds and Jon Mesghna added 11 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Xavier Pollard chipped in with seven points and six rebounds, while Till Gloger and Mike Allison tallied six points each. Shaun Lawton dished out five assists.
“I definitely think we needed a confidence booster,” Edwards said. “This was a great game for that.
“Now we know what we’re capable of and when we lock down on defense, we’ll get stops and we’ll be able to beat teams like this,” he added.
Defense was the difference for the Bears, who had allowed more than 90 points in each of their previous three losses.
UMaine also had surrendered 53 3-pointers on 46 percent shooting against its previous five opponents.
“I did think we defended the arc better,” Woodward said.
Florida Gulf Coast struggled to find the shooting range, especially from long distance. The Eagles went 6-for-29 (21 percent) from the arc, including 1-for-15 in the first half.
“Give Maine credit, they played hard, they played well,” said FGCU coach Andy Enfield. “And we didn’t, so they deserve to win the game.”
The Black Bears built a 10-point halftime lead, then watched it evaporate early in the second half.
The Eagles scored the first 11 points of the half, including a long 3-pointer by Sherwood Brown (17 points) that gave them a short-lived 38-37 lead.
“I thought at the beginning of the second half we came out dead-flat,” Woodward said. “I can’t explain that at all, but I was glad we were able to make a couple plays and get our energy going again.”
It was a gritty performance by UMaine the rest of the way.
Edwards drove in for a lefthanded finger roll to put the Bears back in the lead for good, then Fraser tipped in an Edwards miss in transition and Mesghna drained a 3-pointer to make it 44-38.
The burst, which lasted a minute and eight seconds, enabled the Bears to maintain the upper hand.
It didn’t come easily, as FGCU made repeated challenges. Each time, UMaine stood its ground.
FGCU gave the Bears some problems with its diamond-and-one, full-court pressure, which it implemented much of the way. UMaine committed 20 turnovers, but was able to work around them.
The Eagles improved their offensive efficiency in the second half, shooting 56 percent (19-for-34). They had some success attacking off the dribble and also converted some transition opportunities.
FGCU got within two points for the second time in the half when Eric McKnight scored a transition hoop that cut the deficit to 71-69. But Edwards scored on a pump shot in the lane and Pollard knocked down an open 3-pointer 30 seconds later that made it 76-69 with 2:16 to play.
“We stayed with it,” Woodward said. “We were able to step up and make some plays when we needed to.”
Brett Comer netted 14 and McKnight provided 12 points and seven rebounds to complement Brown’s efforts for the Eagles.
Bernard Thompson added 11 points.
UMaine outrebounded FGCU 42-39, despite giving up 18 offensive rebounds, 13 of which came in the first half.
The Black Bears had built a 37-27 halftime edge with hard-nosed defense and sound offensive execution (52 percent shooting).
UMaine made its move with an 15-6 surge. Dimitry Akanda-Coronel slashed into the lane for a basket and completed a conventional three-point play. Edwards followed, sticking a 3-pointer off a Lawton feed.
Chase Fielder dunked a rebound for FGCU, but Fraser posted a three-point play with a move in the paint and a foul shot. McKnight cashed in another offensive rebound for the Eagles, but Edwards converted an acrobatic baseline drive and later added two free throws to give the Bears a 29-20 lead with 7:04 left in the half.