December 12, 2017
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Small-college players, teams savor Division I challenges

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff
Updated:
UMaine athletics | BDN
UMaine athletics | BDN
Blanca Millan (left) of the University of Maine looks to drive past Maine Maritime Academy's Mikayla Charters during Tuesday night's basketball game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. UMaine's willingness to play Division III instate teams has significant benefits for the smaller programs.

BANGOR, Maine — Alayne Felix admitted to some internal anxiety before stepping onto the Cross Insurance Center court for the Maine Maritime Academy women’s basketball team Tuesday evening.

The 5-foot-10 junior forward from Mahopac, New York, normally has no reason for any self-doubt. She scored her 1,000th career point in just her 58th career game last Saturday and as a reigning All-Maine and All-North Atlantic Conference first-team honoree is acknowledged as one of the top NCAA Division III players in the state.

But this particular challenge was different, with Felix and the rest of the Mariners facing a roster full of Division I scholarship athletes from the University of Maine.

“I was trying my hardest not to think about that,” she said. “Sometimes I can be a very in-your-head player and I did not want to do that at all. All I wanted to do this entire game was just play as hard as I could and not even think about my individual game.

Felix needn’t have worried too much from an individual perspective, as she scored a team-high 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field.

The fact the Black Bears made a school-record 16 3-pointers en route to an 89-49 victory over MMA won’t be a big deal in retrospect.

“We had some small goals we accomplished, but this was a win-win situation for us,” said MMA coach Craig Dagan. “We lose nothing by coming in and doing this, and it’s an experience some of our players will never forget. How many chances do you get to play against Division I players from all over the world?

“There was absolutely no reason not to do this.”

Such matchups between Division I schools and Division III non-scholarship programs are not uncommon, particularly early in the season when teams are not yet focused on conference play.

For Division I programs geographically removed from the basketball mainstream, the home games provide their student-athletes a respite from a typically road-heavy early schedule.

For the smaller schools, Division I foes represent a test of their basketball mettle against a much higher level of competition.

“I was just looking forward to coming out and having a good time,” said University of Maine at Presque Isle senior guard Kevin Collins, who scored a game-high 18 points as the Owls fell to the University of Maine men’s team 75-55 in the second half of Tuesday night’s doubleheader.

“This is a big deal for us. A lot of people look over us because it’s DIII but it’s a good school, a family school, a good environment, and this is a good experience for us to play the University of Maine.”

UMaine raced out to a 20-3 lead against the Owls but UMPI had its moments against the state university, holding the Black Bears without a field goal for a 10-minute, 21-second stretch and scoring 13 straight points at one point to narrow a 22-point deficit to nine points three minutes into the second half.

“We’re not going to play anybody better than UMaine, so this shows the guys they can play with anybody,” said Dan Kane, the former Central of Corinth and University of Maine at Farmington guard now in his first year as UMPI’s men’s basketball coach and athletic director.

“What was really good was that when we were running our stuff we did really well and when we didn’t we didn’t do well, so I’m hoping that will translate and the guys will buy in to doing our stuff all the time.”

Rare is the time when a Division I program falls to a Division III foe. The most noticeable exception in UMaine history was a 65-58 loss to the University of Southern Maine on Dec. 2, 1986, at Memorial Gymnasium on the Orono campus. The Black Bears followed that stunning defeat two nights later with a perhaps even more shocking 84-81 victory over Michigan State at the Bangor Auditorium.

But that’s not the primary point, say the Davids in these matchups against Goliath.

“It’s a great recruiting tool,” said University of Maine at Fort Kent men’s basketball coach Tom Bird earlier this year after scheduling his team to play at reigning America East champion Vermont, a game his Bengals dropped 90-54 on Nov. 22. “It allows us to go play in front of great crowds and allows our guys to see just where we match up against the best.”

Kane learned the recruiting value of having a Division I opponent on the schedule after he was hired in June and began filling out a roster that initially numbered only four players.

“One of my pitches was that you’d get the chance to play a Division I team in your first couple weeks of competition and the guys really liked that,” he said. “It’s also good publicity for the school, and if we have a decent game it might show some of the Maine kids around who play that the University of Maine at Presque Isle could be a good option for them.”

For many small-college programs in the state, the chance to play the University of Maine also is an opportunity to save some time and money.

While the smaller schools won’t reap a financial windfall like UMaine has from its “guarantee games” at Boston College, Texas Tech, Georgetown and Fordham already this season, the trek to Bangor means a relatively short ride home the same evening instead of staying overnight either before or after road games beyond the state’s borders.

The UMPI contingent anticipated a midnight arrival back on campus after its game with the Black Bears ended shortly after 9 p.m.

“It’s a little better than our trip to SUNY Canton when we might be rolling in at 4 in the morning,” said Kane.

The UMaine-Machias men’s basketball team will derive a similar benefit when it plays UMaine on Sunday afternoon as the Black Bears represent UMM’s shortest road trip.

“I’m grateful to (UMaine) coach (Bob) Walsh that he’s given us this opportunity,” said UMM coach Troy Alley, whose roster includes 10 players new to the program, six of them freshmen. “I think they would be expected to handle us so there’s really no down side, it’s just a really good opportunity for some exposure for our program and the university to prospective students and student-athletes.

“We’ll try to prepare for their size and speed, but I think for my kids it’s as much mind over matter.”

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