The University of Maine plays its home basketball games at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, but because of a scheduling conflict, both Black Bear squads may have to play a postseason game on campus.
The Cross Insurance Center is not available March 8-10 because it is hosting the popular Professional Bull Riding Velocity Tour.
So, if the UMaine women’s team advances to the America East semifinals (March 10) and is in a position to host, or if the Black Bear men’s team earns a home-court quarterfinal berth, those contests would be played a Memorial Gym, affectionately known as “The Pit.”
UMaine Athletics Director Ken Ralph said the Cross Center schedule had already been set prior to him starting his job Sept. 1.
“One of the hard things about playing in an off-campus facility in this situation is there is no guarantee that you’re going to host a semifinal. You have to earn that right. You can’t finalize the date until it’s far too late,” Ralph said.
And the Cross Center has to book events far in advance.
America East changed its women’s basketball playoff format this season. It is now similar to the men’s alignment. For the first time since 1997, the women’s conference tournament games will be played at the home courts of the highest seeded teams.
For the past nine years, the first two or three rounds were held at one site and the championship game was hosted by the highest-seeded survivor. In 2017 and 2018, the first two rounds were contested at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
From 1998 to 2009, the entire women’s tournament was held at one venue.
Assuming that the UMaine women earn the right to host and advance in the tourney, they would have access to the Cross Insurance Center for the quarterfinal and championship games March 6 and 15, respectively.
“The Cross Insurance Center is our home court, but it’s not available. We practice at The Pit every day. We’ll be fine. But we’ve got to get there first,” UMaine women’s head coach Amy Vachon said.
The Black Bears are 13-7 overall, 6-1 in league play, heading into Wednesday’s home game against UMass Lowell. Hartford leads America East at 7-0.
The UMaine men do not appear to be a candidate to host a quarterfinal game, which will be played March 12. The Black Bears (3-18) are 1-5 in league play and are tied for last place.
“I like the fact we’ll be on campus. It might be kind of fun for the team to be in there for a game,” Ralph said. “It will be nostalgic and, hopefully, people will want to turn out to make it an intimidating place to play.”
Memorial Gym can only hold approximately 1,268 spectators compared with the Cross Insurance Center’s capacity of 5,800.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get the students in there. I would love to see a student section. That would give us the edge we need,” said Ralph, who pointed to UMaine’s lively student section at men’s hockey games.
The women’s team played their Tip-Off Tournament in Memorial Gym in November 2017. There were 1,054 fans for the opening game against Tulane and 855 watched them beat Harvard the next day.
“It was a great environment,” senior guard Tanesha Sutton said. “It doesn’t matter if we play at the Cross Center or at The Pit. It feels great playing where our fans are.”
This season, the women have averaged 1,979 fans at the Cross Insurance Center, including 1,821 for their four America East games. A total of 3,373 fans watched UMaine beat Hartford in last year’s league championship game.
“We have larger crowds at the Cross Center, but we practice here every day so this is more of a home court for us. It’s exciting,” sophomore guard Dor Saar said.
The Black Bear men have averaged 1,014 fans for their seven home games and 947 for their three AE home contests.
There are two other conflicts with the Cross Insurance Center this season involving the women’s and men’s teams.
The women were originally scheduled to play their Sunday, Feb. 24, game against Stony Brook at the CIC, but a Christian band, Casting Crowns, has been booked for that date. Instead, the Black Bears will play the Augusta Civic Center.
And the men’s game against Binghamton on Saturday, March 2, has been pushed up from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m. because the Classes C and D high school basketball state championship games are scheduled for that day.
Ralph praised the CIC staff and said some occasional scheduling conflicts are to be expected because of the variety of events held at the facility.
“They’re doing the best they can with the resources available,” Ralph said. “The building isn’t designed to host basketball games. We bring our staff down for games, and their staff does their thing. It takes a lot of coordination to put a game on.”
Ralph said the even though the arrangement with the Cross Insurance Center has not been financially profitable, UMaine athletics in August signed a five-year contract that runs through 2023. UMaine pays $6,869 per game to play at the facility, which opened in September 2013.
“To be fair about it, we need to do more to improve the competitiveness [of the men’s team] and market the programs better,” Ralph said.
“It’s hard to draw a lot of students. I’d love to get more students to the games,” he said.
Ever since moving their games to the Cross Center, UMaine basketball coaches have said playing in the facility is an important tool in recruiting.
Ralph and Vachon said it would be ideal to have a basketball facility on campus, but because of the cost that isn’t an option at this time.
“Anyone would want to play on their campus, but the Cross Center is really special. It has been really good to us since we started playing there,” Vachon said.
Ralph said UMaine is formulating a master plan for facilities improvements. A new on-campus facility will be discussed, but he pointed out that a lot of universities are building new multipurpose practice facilities but still play games off campus.
He said one key is to provide the basketball programs with everything they need to succeed at a high level.
“We have to do more to support our basketball teams. We haven’t done enough for them,” Ralph said.
“This is a basketball state and we have to recognize that. We need to do more to develop interest in our programs,” he said.