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The University of Maine men’s basketball team showed Wednesday night that growth isn’t always reflected in victory.
The Black Bears took defending America East champion Vermont to the final buzzer before an Andrew Fleming 3-pointer went wide, enabling the favored Catamounts to escape with a 59-57 victory at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
The win was the 18th straight for Vermont against Maine, but this was the most competitive of the bunch. UMaine started fast, withstood a strong start by Vermont after intermission and played the Catamounts to a physical, sometimes chippy stalemate until redshirt junior guard Ben Shungu drove the lane and scored the winning basket on a goaltending call with four seconds left.
“Coach [John] Becker drew up a play where we try to occupy both wings to open the court and I was just trying to make a play and get to the rim and hopefully get to the basket,” Shungu said of his lone field goal of the game.
UMaine advanced the ball to the frontcourt and called time with 1.3 seconds left. Vilgot Larsson inbounded the ball from the left wing some 25 feet from the basket and passed to a cutting Fleming in the left corner.
The senior forward let one defender go by, then lofted a long shot that on this occasion didn’t get to the rim.
“I thought our execution on the last play was great,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said. “Andrew had a great look at it and he’s hit that shot to win some games for us already this year so maybe it was too much for me to think he’d do it a third time.”
The loss capped off a 2-1 homestand for UMaine, now 6-14 overall and 2-4 in America East play.
Vermont improved to 14-6 overall, 4-1 in the conference.
“Every road game is tough and everybody is going to give us their best shot,” Shungu said. “So if we don’t prepare the way we should we’re going to be in a dogfight just like that.”
UMaine played without senior point guard Sergio El Darwich, who suffered a broken middle finger on his right hand during a workout Monday. He earned America East Player of the Week honors after averaging 31 points, 9.5 assists and 7.0 rebounds.
But while UMaine wasn’t able to generate as much offense without the veteran guard, the Black Bears were able to hang with Vermont — the best defensive team in the league entering that contest — with strong defense of their own, mixing a 2-3 zone with man-to-man and zone pressure.
Vermont reserve center Ryan Davis overcame that defensive focus to score a career-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field and a 5-of-6 night from the free-throw line.
As UMaine kept its collective eyes on reigning AE player of the year Anthony Lamb, Davis was able to get open near the basket for high-percentage shots, scoring 11 points in each half.
“We knew coming in that they were going to show a lot of attention to Anthony, and they like to step out of the hole from under the rim and I just got the opportunity to catch and finish and be strong in there,” Davis said.
Lamb and Fleming were matched up for most of the night and played to a standoff. Fleming led UMaine with 13 points, six rebounds five assists and four steals, while Lamb had 10 points — including just two field goals — to go with six rebounds and three assists.
Nedelko Prijovic added 11 points for UMaine while freshman guard Precious Okoh scored 10 points while teaming with classmates Peter Stumer and Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish to help make up for the loss of El Darwich.
“We were engaged the whole game and that hasn’t happened for me in my whole career here, and that was good,” Fleming said.
A layup by Davis with 46 seconds left in the opening half gave Vermont its first lead, a 28-26 advantage it took into intermission.
Vermont came out strong early in the second half, and built its largest lead at 44-34 after a 3-pointer and inside basket by Davis, the latter with 13:12 remaining.
But a 3-pointer by Okoh started UMaine on the comeback trail, and UMaine got all the way back with a stretch of 8 of 9 free throws, with a pair by Fleming tying the game at 55-55 with 1:15 left.
Lamb posted up to put Vermont back on top with 52 seconds left, but two Solomon Iluyomade re-tied the game with 32.9 seconds remaining.
“I thought our execution was pretty good and for the most part our shot selection was pretty good,” Barron said. I thought we responded really well in the second half.
“It was a super exciting game. I’m very proud of the way our guys responded,” Barron added.