History is not on the side of the University of Maine men’s basketball team as it prepares for Saturday night’s America East quarterfinal at the University of Vermont.
Not only have the Black Bears never earned a trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament in program history, they haven’t won a single conference postseason game since a 47-45 quarterfinal victory over Boston University on March 5, 2005.
Fifteen consecutive postseason losses have ensued, with each of the last four seasons ending in the AE quarterfinals at Vermont. The three most recent clashes were battles between the top-seeded Catamounts against a University of Maine team clutching the eighth and final seed.
Armed with the homecourt advantage of cozy Patrick Gymnasium, Vermont has won those last four postseason meetings by an average of 23.3 points.
Saturday’s meeting will be another 1-8 match, with Vermont (24-7 overall, 14-2 in America East) a considerable favorite over UMaine (9-21, 5-11 AE).
But while Vermont swept two regular-season games with UMaine, the Black Bears did not have their top two players, senior forward Andrew Fleming and senior guard Sergio El Darwich, together for either of those contests due to injuries.
UMaine nearly stunned the Catamounts without El Darwich before dropping a 59-57 decision at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Jan. 22. Vermont then held service at home on Feb. 5 with a 77-52 victory over the Fleming-less Black Bears.
Both El Darwich (14.9 points, 5.2 rebounds per game) and Fleming (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) should be available for the third meeting, and that duo has been bolstered in recent games by the play of redshirt junior forward Nedeljko Prijovic and redshirt freshman Stephane Ingo.
Prijovic has averaged 20.0 points and 6.3 rebounds during UMaine’s 2-1 finish to the regular season. Ingo has contributed 9.8 points and 11.3 rebounds per contest during that same span, which includes back-to-back victories over No. 4 Maryland Baltimore County and at No. 3 Hartford to close out the schedule.
The wins over UMBC and Hartford also pushed UMaine to its best overall and conference records since the 2012-13 Black Bears went 13-19 overall, 6-10 in league play.
Even in defeat the Black Bears largely have been competitive, particularly since the end of their nonconference schedule. Nine of their 11 America East losses have come by an average of 6.6 points — or as UMaine coach Richard Barron has grown fond of saying, “two plays” short of victory.
“They’ve played a lot of tight games in the league,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “Sometimes it’s just learning how to win, and maybe they’re starting to do that now with these last couple of wins and are figuring out how to close out games they might have let slip away earlier in the year.
“They definitely are playing good basketball.”
Certainly there’s a heightened sense of confidence around the program.
“You’ve got to go out and play your best game, but if we stick with our game plan and don’t give up a big run we’ve got a chance for a very competitive game,” Barron said. “If it gets down to the end where it’s a make-or-miss shot situation I think we’ve got a good chance to be there at the end. We’re really kind of finding our groove here in the late season.”
Vermont overcame an opening-game loss in conference play at home to Stony Brook to finish the regular season four games clear of the second-place Seawolves (19-12, 10-6 AE) in the America East standings.
The defending conference tournament champion features a talented blend of frontcourt strength and guard depth including senior forward and preseason America East player of the year Anthony Lamb (16.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and 6-8 sophomore Ryan Davis, who has averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games against UMaine.
“I like where we’re at and obviously there’s a lot more parity this year and it should be an interesting and fun conference tournament,” Becker said. “So all that we’ve accomplished is great but it’s time to turn the page and be ready to go for the conference tournament starting with a really hot Maine team right now.
“It will be real interesting.”