ORONO, Maine — College basketball is all about enthusiasm, energy and excitement.
All three elements were in evidence Tuesday night at Alfond Arena.
A throng of 800 University of Maine students turned out for free cash and prizes during “America East Beach Night Money Madness.” The result was a highly-charged atmosphere that helped propel the home team to victory.
Zarko Valjarevic calmly sank two free throws with 9.6 seconds to play to help the Black Bears erase a nine-point, second-half deficit and knock off first-place Vermont 71-68 in a dandy of a men’s basketball contest witnessed by 2,265 partisan fans.
“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t really had a big crowd like that, so it’s just amazing to play in front of our fans and get a win,” said sophomore guard Justin Edwards, who scored 15 of his game-high 22 points in the second half. Hopefully, they’ll come out more.”
Coach Ted Woodward’s UMaine team (8-11, 3-3 AE), which was coming off a one-point loss to last-place Binghamton, demonstrated its poise and grit.
The Bears were without starting sophomore point guard Xavier Pollard, who was suspended for an unspecified violation of team policy, according to Woodward, who called it “an internal matter.”
Pollard is averaging 10.1 points and a team-best 4.3 assists.
UMaine, which utilized five players for 30 minutes or more (Alasdair Fraser played every second), was able to reconfigure its lineup effectively. That included a career-high 13 points and 30 minutes from Valjarevic.
The sophomore shooting guard from Serbia scored 10 points in the second half, including the clutch foul shots.
“The crowd was like the sixth player every single second of this game, just giving a huge lift from the beginning to the last possession,” Valjarevic said.
The Catamounts (12-7, 5-2 AE) were without leading scorer Luke Apfeld (10.3 ppg), who missed his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury.
UMaine took the lead for good with 5:17 to play when Fraser (20 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocked shots) scored on an offensive rebound. The Black Bears afforded Vermont only two points the rest of the way.
An Edwards foul shot made it 69-66, but Cardon Rusin drove the baseline for a transition layup to get the Cats within one with 1:07 left.
UMaine missed its next shot, rebounded, and missed another, but kept the ball when it was tipped out by Vermont with 10.5 to play. The Bears called timeout and inbounded to Valjarevic, who was quickly fouled.
He stepped to the line and converted.
“My teammates trusted me and I couldn’t let them down. I had to hit those two free throws,” Valjarevic said.
Vermont had 9.6 seconds to run a play after another timeout, but the defense stood tall and Rugg’s long 3-pointer from the top of the key missed at the final horn.
“It’s a tremendous win against a good basketball team,” Woodward said.
“This is college basketball at its best,” he added. “You can just go out there, you could feel the energy. That’s why home court’s so important in college basketball and we certainly appreciate it.”
Edwards, who notched four assists and a steal, overcame a shaky first half during which he committed six of his seven turnovers. Mike Allison contributed six points and 11 rebounds and Till Gloger scored five points, while Jon Mesghna provided solid defense. Jon McAllian of Bangor and Shaun Lawton also contributed key minutes off the bench.
Rugg tossed in 21 points and grabbed six rebounds to pace Vermont, which received 15 points from Carissimo and six points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals from Brian Voelkel.
Vermont appeared to be taking charge early in the second half, extending a five-point halftime lead to 50-41 on a Rugg 3-pointer with 14:18 to play.
The Bears steadied themselves, then Edwards took over.
With the hosts trailing 54-47, Valjarevic drained a 3-pointer off a skip pass from Edwards to ignite an 11-4 spurt. Edwards sandwiched a finger roll in transition and another runner from the paint around two Carissimo free throws.
“I just kept driving and the lane was open every time,” said Edwards, who credited some first-half 3-pointers with keeping Vermont from helping on him, “so I made sure I kept pushing.”
Edwards then answered Carissimo’s 16-foot jumper with a conventional three-point play off another penetration move and converted a driving pump shot to give UMaine a 59-58 lead with 7:49 left.
“We were doing a good job of containing him, then second half we played into his strengths by pressing up on him,” said Vermont coach John Becker. “He just went right by us.”
The Bears shot 47 percent from the field, racked up 19 assists and outrebounded the Catamounts 36-30.
Vermont shot only 31 percent (9-for-29) in the second half, including 2-for-11 on 3-pointers.
“It was another case where we didn’t shoot well, kind of let our offense affect our defense, and lost composure a bit,” Becker said.
Vermont ended the first half on a 13-4 scoring run to grab a 41-36 lead at the break.
The Black Bears’ sloppy handling the of the basketball cost them down the stretch. The Catamounts converted five UMaine turnovers into nine points over the last 5:11 of the half.
Edwards, who was playing the point in place of Pollard, committed all five of the turnovers and finished with six in 17 minutes of action in the half.
Fraser poured in 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting to power the UMaine offense, which shot 52 percent (15-for-29) from the floor, including 5-for-9 from 3-point range.
Rugg set the tone for Vermont with 13 first-half points, most of which came from close range. The Catamounts connected at 58 percent (15-for-26) and hit four 3-pointers.
Vermont committed only one turnover.
The visitors pulled in front in the last four minutes of the half. Trailing 32-29, Rugg converted a back-door lob from Voelkel and Carissimo drained a 3-pointer in transition after a UMaine turnover.
Another miscue led to Ethan O’Day’s 14-foot jumper, before Fraser scored off an offensive rebound with a nifty spin move to end a four-minute scoring drought for the Bears. However, a Voelkel free throw, two foul shots by O’Day and Ben Crenca’s bucket from underneath gave the Catamounts a 41-34 lead with 30 seconds left in the half.