ORONO, Maine — Unpredictability continues to be a predictable dynamic for the University of Maine men’s basketball team.
On Wednesday night, the Black Bears struggled through a lackluster first half and never completely recovered as the University of New Hampshire escaped with a 57-54 America East victory at Alfond Arena.
Coach Bill Herrion’s Wildcats (6-14, 2-6 AE) relied on their senior experience while repelling a determined second-half charge by the Black Bears. It was New Hampshire’s second straight victory after nine consecutive losses.
“It’s a great win for us. We have not won up here in a while,” Herrion said. “We’ve struggled up here. We’ve struggled against Maine, home and away, the last four or five years.”
UMaine (8-13, 3-5 AE) showed tremendous fight in erasing what had been a 17-point deficit, especially with sophomore star Justin Edwards sidelined by a first-half injury.
The Black Bears were unable to get enough stops or make enough shots to regain the lead during the last 10 minutes.
“I thought we dug [ourselves] a big hole,” said UMaine coach Ted Woodward, who said his team did not play with much energy early.
“Obviously, I thought we fought back extremely hard in the second half, played good defense, really cut down on our turnovers,” he added, “but it was an uphill battle for 20 minutes and we’ve got to play a 40-minute game.”
Edwards, who was averaging a team-leading 17.6 points, along with 5.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals, played only 12 minutes. He logged seven points, four rebounds and four turnovers before leaving the game with a left ankle injury with 5:47 left in the first half.
Woodward said he did not know the extent of the injury, but Edwards walked gingerly as he exited the arena.
The contest went down to the wire, as Xavier Pollard’s driving pump shot cut the UNH lead to 55-54 with 9.7 seconds to play. The Black Bears fouled, sending Patrick Konan to the line.
He missed the front end of a bonus, but teammate Chris Matagrano grabbed a clutch offensive rebound, was fouled and sank both ends of a double bonus with 7.6 seconds left to make it a three-point game.
The Bears set up for a final play, but Zarko Valjarevic’s contested 28-footer missed everything at the buzzer.
“I thought we had some good, solid, open 3-point looks late in the game, they just didn’t fall,” Woodward said.
Alasdair Fraser led UMaine with a game-high 20 points and eight rebounds. Pollard (5 rebounds, 3 assists) and Valjarevic (4 rebounds) each contributed nine points. Mike Allison posted six points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots.
Gritty guard Chandler Rhoads sparked the Wildcats with 18 points and seven rebounds. Matagrano finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, and Ferg Myrick chipped in 13 points and six rebounds.
UMaine outrebounded UNH 46-39, but the Wildcats had 16 second-chance points and committed only five turnovers to the Bears’ 12.
The Wildcats set the tone with aggressive man-to-man defense and took a 35-22 lead to the locker room at the break.
UNH applied pressure all over the court, helping harass UMaine into numerous bad decisions and 10 first-half turnovers.
“I thought we missed a lot of shots at the basket early on,” Woodward offered.
UNH pulled in front with an 11-0 run that came via stingy defense and five UMaine turnovers. Six of the points came from the foul line and Jordon Bronner’s runner at the 8:12 mark made it 20-9.
The Bears suffered through a scoreless drought of 5:45 and went 7 1/2 minutes without a field goal.
“I feel like their pressure gave them the momentum and that’s why they got the early lead,” Fraser said. “We played pretty soft to start off with and then the second half we picked up and went harder but then we lost, so it doesn’t really matter.”
The Wildcats then scored the first four points of the second half to seize a 39-22 advantage, but UMaine responded.
Fraser scored seven points, including a 3-pointer, and Valjarevic knocked down two 3-pointers during an 11-0 flurry that got the Bears back into contention at 39-35 with 14:07 to play.
UMaine did eventually draw even (52-52) on Allison’s tip-in of a close-range miss by Pollard with 2:15 remaining. However, a Myrick foul shot and Rhoads’ 18-foot jumper kept UNH in front.
The Bears had several possessions on which they could have taken the lead in the second half, but were unable to convert them. It made Edwards’ absence more noticeable.
“He’s a go-to guy down the stretch, that’s what Justin is,” Woodward said, “and he’s a guy that in very close situations, he’s a guy a lot of times that’s had the ball in his hands and was able to make plays.”
UMaine starts the second half of the conference schedule Saturday with a 7 p.m. game at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.