Sam Ihekwoaba (3) scored a career-high 18 points during UMaine’s 69-66 loss at New Jersey Institute of Technology in their mutual conference opener on Sunday afternoon at Newark, New Jersey. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine men’s basketball team is set to make its America East home debut against Binghamton at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center on Sunday afternoon armed with one of conference’s hottest newcomers.

Sam Ihekwoaba, the Black Bears’ 6-foot-5 freshman guard from Orlando, Florida, via Scotland Campus Prep in Pennsylvania, is the two-time reigning America East Rookie of the Week and a three-time winner of the award already this season.

Making his first start for the Black Bears last Saturday at Stony Brook, Ihekwoaba posted career highs of 22 points and nine rebounds in 36 minutes while helping UMaine rally from a 21-point second-half deficit to within five points before the Seawolves held on for an 80-72 victory.

Ihekwoaba scored 12 straight UMaine points during one 3-minute, 50-second stretch of that comeback and finished the game making 10 of 19 field-goal attempts.

He enters Sunday’s game averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in America East play and 6.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field in 13 games overall. Ihekwoaba’s performance is a bright spot for UMaine, which is 3-10 overall and 0-2 in conference games.

“He can score coming off screens, in the post or with the ball creating his own shot whether that be in the mid-range or getting to the rim,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said. “He’s pretty versatile.”

His performance against Stony Brook followed an 18-point, six-rebound AE rookie-of-the-week effort in 34 minutes off the bench on Jan. 2 when New Jersey Institute of Technology edged the Black Bears 69-66 in their mutual America East opener.

Ihekwoaba earned his first rookie of the week recognition on Dec. 6 after scoring nine points on 3-of-3 shooting from both the field and the free-throw line in 10 minutes of duty during a 77-66 non-conference loss at Columbia.

“His buy-in is pretty good,” Barron said. “He’s still got a long way to go and a lot to learn but he’s coachable and he responds and he’s learning. There are a lot of areas where he’s getting to the tipping point where he’s able to get out there and really make contributions on both ends of the floor.”

The UMaine coaching staff first saw Ihekwoaba while scouting another first-year Black Bear, 6-foot-7 freshman guard Novak Perovic of Belgrade, Serbia, and the Hoosac School in Hoosick, New York.

“[Ihekwoaba’s] length, his versatility and his ability to play and guard multiple positions all were part of that and he was well liked by his coaches,” Barron said. “All of that contributed to the desire to get him up here.”

UMaine players have won AE Rookie of the Week honors in four of the nine weeks it has been awarded so far this season.

Byron Ireland, a 6-1 freshman guard from Annapolis, Maryland, and St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, was named the league’s first rookie of the week for the 2021-22 season on Nov. 15 after coming off the bench to average 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals in UMaine’s season-opening games against Virginia Tech and UMaine Farmington.

He has averaged 23 minutes per game during America East play, averaging 9.5 points on 44 percent shooting from the field and 83 percent accuracy from the free-throw line.

“Nine of our players are new, and even if they’re not true freshmen they’re essentially freshmen,” Barron said. “I think we’ve seen improvement from some of the other guys [besides Ihekwoaba], too, and Byron certainly lately has done well.”

Binghamton enters Sunday’s 1 p.m. contest at 5-7 overall, 2-1 in America East play.

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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...