A basketball game is a beautiful experience for a shooter when the ball is going through the net.
The University of Maine men’s basketball team struggled with that phase of the game during many of its first 16 games this season, but the Black Bears rediscovered their shooting touch at the Cross Insurance Center on Monday night during a 71-64 victory over New Hampshire in the first of their two-games-in-three-nights American East border war.
Coach Richard Barron’s club made 14 of its 28 3-point attempts — nearly twice as accurate as the team’s 25.3 percent shooting accuracy from long distance for the season entering the game — and shot 49 percent (25 of 51) percent from the field overall while making 7 of 8 free-throw attempts.
Sophomore guard Vukasin Masic and junior guard Maks Klanjscek were the primary sharpshooters, combining to make 19 of 31 attempts from the field and shoot 8 of 13 from 3-point land while finishing with career-high totals of 25 points each.
Masic scored a game-high 12 points in a first half that ended with UMaine holding a 32-23 lead, then Klanjscek led the Black Bears with 18 points after intermission.
Junior guard Ja’Shonte Wright-McLeish added 13 points, including a 4-of-8 effort from 3-point land, as UMaine never trailed after the opening six minutes to secure its first Division I victory of the season.
“It was great to see the ball go through the hoop,” said redshirt junior forward Stephane Ingo, who contributed seven rebounds and three blocked shots while seeing his first action since suffering a broken right wrist nearly two months ago.
“We’ve worked so hard through the off-season and through this stretch of games, and we know what we can do. We haven’t been shooting the ball well but we know we’re a much better shooting team and it was great to see Max, Jay and Vu hit shots. That got us the win.”
The victory also ended a seven-game losing streak for the Black Bears, now 4-13 overall, 1-5 in conference play.
Nick Guadarrama scored 20 points while Marco Foster scored 17 and Jayden Martinez added 13 for UNH, which fell to 7-7 overall, 2-3 in America East.
“We just followed the game plan, and we did a great job defensively locking down their main players,” said Masic, a transfer from Hofstra. “When you play good defense it’s much easier to play offense.”
The teams will play their second game in three nights on Wednesday in a matchup postponed from Jan 12. Game time is 7 p.m. at Lundholm Gymnasium in Durham, New Hampshire, where the Wildcats are 6-0 this season while UMaine is 0-9 on the road.
“We’re glad we got the win, but the next game is in two days so we can’t dwell on this,” Klanjscek said. “We can definitely learn from it and be happy about it and now start a winning streak, hopefully.”
UMaine shot 48.1 percent (13 of 27) from the field while using primarily zone defenses to limit UNH to 30 percent shooting in the first half.
Masic and Wright-McLeish each made two 3-pointers as UMaine outshot America East’s leading 3-point shooting team from long range over the first 20 minutes, making 6 of 12 attempts from beyond the arc compared with 4 of 13 for UNH, which entered the contest making 38.1 percent of its 3-pointers.
UMaine’s effort was bolstered by the return to the lineup of the 6-foot-9-inch Ingo, making his first appearance for the Black Bears since Nov. 27. Ingo had a small, padded cast on his right wrist but was a strong defensive presence near the basket with five rebounds and two blocked shots during 10 first-half minutes.
UNH sought to work the ball to Martinez and Guadarrama on the interior to open the second half, but UMaine offset that effort with more long-range shooting.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Klanjscek — a long bank shot as time was running out on the shot clock — and Masic built UMaine’s lead to 38-27 less than three minutes into the period, and a later 13-0 run capped off by right-wing 3-pointers from Klanjscek and Wright-McLeish gave the Black Bears their largest lead at 54-36 with 11:20 left.
UNH used fullcourt defense to claw back into contention.
A 9-0 run that featured 3-pointers by Foster and Qon Murphy and a steal and slam by Martinez closed the gap to 61-53 with 2:53 left, but while UMaine continued to struggle against the fullcourt pressure UNH was unable to draw closer than the final margin as the Black Bears went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 50 seconds.