Connecticut's Alterique Gilbert shoots as Nedeljko Prijovic, center, and Stephane Ingo of the University of Maine defend during the first half of a December 2019 game in Hartford, Conn. Credit: Jessica Hill | AP

Stephane Ingo’s shot-blocking potential was apparent as soon as he joined the University of Maine men’s basketball program in the fall of 2018.

After a redshirt season last winter, Ingo’s rim protection has become a significant contribution to a Black Bears’ bench contingent that is starting to have its own influence.

Take Sunday’s 86-63 victory over Binghamton at the Cross Insurance Center.

The visiting Bearcats were struggling but hanging around, trailing 62-46 eight minutes into the second half.

Then the 6-foot-9 forward from Mississauga, Ontario — via Gould Academy in Bethel — turned fly swatter, rising up to reject a close-range shot by Binghamton 7-foot center Yarden Willis.

That led to a transition layup by senior guard Sergio El Darwich, part of a game-clinching 8-3 energy burst that also included a dunk by senior forward Andrew Fleming and a steal by Ingo that was followed by his pass ahead for a dunk by freshman guard Peter Stumer.

Suddenly the Black Bears’ lead was 70-49 with 9½ minutes left, and the advantage dropped no lower than 19 points the rest of the way.

“We want that energy to begin with but it’s so much easier to get that energy when there’s a big block like that or a nice steal or a charge,” said Fleming, whose team closes out its three-game homestand at 7 p.m. Wednesday against defending conference champion Vermont. “It really just boosts the whole team up.”

UMaine’s second straight America East victory included a 21-16 edge in bench points over Binghamton, marking the sixth straight game the Black Bears’ reserves have outscored their opponents.

The team is 3-3 in those outings after a 3-10 start to the season.

“As the season is going on we’re getting more and more familiar with the offense and everybody’s getting a feel for each other,” said Ingo, who contributed 13 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes against Binghamton.

“The biggest thing is, we want to come in off the bench and give a boost, any kind of spark. The starters are going to play and do their roles but you can’t really win a game if your bench is getting outscored by 20 by the other bench,” Ingo said.

UMaine reserves have outscored their rivals by an average of eight points per game over the last six contests, highlighted by a 33-15 advantage during a 104-98 overtime victory over UMass Lowell last Wednesday in Bangor.

That game featured a 14-point effort off the bench from walk-on freshman guard Precious Okoh, who complemented a 36-point, 10-assist, 9-rebound performance by El Darwich.

Okoh shot 5 of 6 from the field and 2 of 2 on 3-point tries and from the free-throw line during his 19 minutes against the River Hawks.

Okoh came back against Binghamton with three points, four rebounds and an assist in nearly 17 minutes. UMaine coach Richard Barron largely stayed with the hot hand of El Darwich, who followed up his UML masterpiece with 26 points, nine assists and five rebounds against the Bearcats.

“When Sergio’s playing well like he is right now it’s hard to take him out of the game,” Barron said.

“It helps when you have choices. Instead of trying to look for solutions you feel like you’re working with a full deck,” he added.

That full deck has emerged largely from a group of players who had no previous experience with the Black Bears before this season.

Senior center Miks Antoms has been a steadying influence on the second unit, joining Ingo and redshirt sophomore Solomon Iluyomade to provide frontcourt support for starters Nedeljko Prijovic, Vilgot Larsson and Fleming.

Okoh, redshirt sophomore Misha Yagodin and freshman Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish have provided primary backcourt backup in recent games for El Darwich and Stumer, who has made four starts for the Black Bears.

“We’re just trying to find any kind of energy,” Ingo said. “[We’re] trying to play hard, shoot when you’re open, go for offensive rebounds and do the hustle plays and little things.

“If you’re doing those things well you’re going to get more minutes and help the team so that’s really the goal, to go in and play hard.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...