Andrew Fleming of the University of Maine (left) grabs a rebound against Connecticut's Akok Akok during Dec. 1, 2019, game. The senior is seeing important signs of growth among the Black Bears' younger players. Credit: Jessica Hill | AP

Andrew Fleming vividly remembers his introduction to Division I college basketball, not long removed from an All-Maine career at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris.

“We played Virginia Tech in my first game and they were really fast,” said Fleming, now a senior captain at the University of Maine. “A couple of times they just took the ball right out of my hands, but after that I think I adjusted really well.”

Fleming indeed adjusted quickly. He earned America East All-Rookie status in 2017 and now is firmly established as one of the conference’s top players. He was a second-team All-AE choice last winter and a preseason all-league pick this year.

The 6-foot-7 forward is an elder statesman on a 2020 UMaine roster that includes seven true freshmen and four others who, last season, had played in either one game or none for the Black Bears.

While this year’s team got off to a slow start against a rugged non-conference schedule, Fleming now sees signs that the newcomers are making their own adjustments to Division I competition.

“It’s more about how much time you get on the court and, depending on upperclassman and other things, that might not happen right away for everyone,” Fleming said. “I think our freshmen are starting to get enough time where they’re really learning how the game’s played and how physical America East really is.”

Such progress was evident throughout UMaine’s recent three-game conference homestand, which generated hope for a program that averaged only 5.8 victories per year over the previous five seasons.

Wins over UMass Lowell (overtime) and Binghamton were followed by Wednesday’s 59-57 loss to defending America East champion Vermont. The Black Bears left the court after missing a game-winning shot at the buzzer, despite the absence of reigning conference player of the week Sergio El Darwich (broken finger).

“We were much closer to playing to our potential [against Vermont] than in other games, and doing that against a good team that was favored to win the league,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said.

One noticeable area of growth is the team’s depth. Freshman guards Peter Stumer, Precious Okoh and Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish combined to replace El Darwich against Vermont. Stumer did much of the ball handling and induced three player-control fouls while Okoh and Wright-McLeish teamed up for 18 points and just one turnover as they matched Vermont’s backcourt production.

The Black Bears also played Vermont to a 24-24 stalemate in bench points, marking the seventh straight game they have either outscored or tied their opponent in that department.

“The entire group is growing and playing more mature,” Barron said. “I think they’re playing with greater sense of confidence, certainly, but also a greater sense of purpose. They’re trusting what they’re doing. We seem to not be as distracted or getting off track as easily as maybe we were earlier in the season.

“In that sort of comfort level is the opportunity to be really competitive.”

The 2-1 homestand left UMaine at 6-14 overall, 2-4 in America East with 10 conference games remaining.

But now comes the big test, seeing how well that growth transfers to the road.

Beginning with Saturday’s game at Maryland Baltimore County, UMaine will play four of its next five on the road. The lone exception is a Feb. 1 date against Hartford at The Pit in Orono.

The Black Bears are 1-10 on the road this season.

“There’s a lot of basketball left in the year,” Barron said. “We’ve got 10 conference games left and then the playoffs. We need to make sure we’re in those playoffs, and I think it’s within reason to see if we can’t find a way to get a home game in there, too. I don’t think that’s out of the question.

“We’re almost through the first round [of AE competition] and there’s nobody I feel like we can’t play with. I also think there’s nobody that can’t beat us if they play well and we don’t.”

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...