BANGOR, Maine — Nothing has come easy for the University of Maine men’s basketball team in recent times, so the Black Bears’ 55-53 victory over Holy Cross Wednesday at the Cross Insurance Center was all the more satisfying.
The Black Bears used long-range shooting accuracy and stout interior defense to build a 10-point halftime lead, then mustered enough key plays at both ends of the court late in the contest to outlast the defending Patriot League tournament champions and halt a five-game losing streak against Division I opponents.
“I don’t think we do easy,” said UMaine coach Bob Walsh. “We were tough, and we were together, and we haven’t consistently done that at a high level the way we need to.
“Tonight we really showed a commitment to one another, a connection and a competitive spirit that made us tough to beat,” he said.
UMaine (3-6) outrebounded the taller Crusaders 41-24, and while Holy Cross frontcourt standout Malachi Alexander managed 16 points and six rebounds, the Black Bears’ defense held its own with the Crusaders’ inside game while outscoring Holy Cross 36-6 from 3-point land.
“They came out with energy, and they outplayed us right from the get-go, and it was an uphill battle for us the whole way,” said Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody.
UMaine got a big two-way game from guard Ryan Bernstein, who hit four early 3-pointers to stake the Black Bears to a 17-4 lead, grabbed a team-high seven rebounds and made some transition-stopping defensive plays as Holy Cross was rallying late in the contest.
“We came into this game feeling confident, and every time we were huddled up we were saying, ‘We can win this game, we got this game,’” said Bernstein. “When it came down to it, I knew we were going to defend and get the stop we needed, and we got that stop and closed it out.”
Bernstein and Ilker Er each scored 12 points on 4-of-8 3-point shooting, and freshman forward Andrew Fleming of South Paris complemented strong inside defense with seven points and six rebounds. Marko Pirovic added a game-high six assists for UMaine, which had assists on 17 of its 18 field goals.
“There was a commitment to executing the game plan,” said Walsh.
Yet Holy Cross (3-6) gradually inched closer to UMaine after trailing 32-22 after intermission, with a 9-0 run closing the gap to 44-39 with 8:38 remaining.
Er came out of a UMaine timeout with back-to-back 3-pointers — one from the right corner and the second in transition after Bernstein denied a Holy Cross fast break and came up with the defensive rebound.
“That’s what I’m working on every day, and my teammates trust me,” said Er, who along with leading scorer Wes Myers came off the bench for the first time this season. “Every day I’m shooting more than 700. I just need to get better on defense, I think.”
Er’s flurry gave UMaine a 50-39 edge with 7:37 left, but Holy Cross quickly got those six points back on two post moves by Alexander around a steal and slam by Jehyve Floyd.
UMaine managed just one field goal over the final 7½ minutes, but it proved pivotal as Myers weaved his way through the lane to score the Black Bears’ lone unassisted basket and give them a 54-49 lead with 1:25 left.
Karl Charles answered with a 3-pointer to pull Holy Cross within 54-52 with 1:07 left, but Charles missed a drive after a UMaine turnover and Fleming hit one of two from the line to make it a 3-point game with 17.1 seconds left.
Alexander came up short on a 3-pointer from the key, but the Crusaders regained possession after a missed Pirovic free throw with four seconds left.
Myers quickly fouled Robert Champion — who made a non-counting 75-foot heave just after the play was blown dead — and Champion (13 points, eight rebounds) made the first free throw before missing the second on purpose, only for it to go out of bounds to UMaine with 0.8 seconds left.
“I thought we had a pretty good flow early in the second half and we missed some shots, then we started turning it over, we got a little tight,” said Walsh. “We’ve got to get used to being up double digits in the second half and putting teams away. Hopefully this will help that.”