It was a scenario that had played out many times before: After playing with effort and energy for the first 20 minutes of basketball, the Black Bears were sputtering down the stretch, and appeared to be running out of gas.
Hanging on to a 57-56 advantage with 1:26 remaining — their 13 point halftime lead all but gone — and with the ball Binghamton high-flyer Romello Walkers’ hands, the Black Bears backs were squarely up against it. And as Walker exploded towards the rim, yet another complete collapse seemed all but certain in Orono.
But in a flash, Maine reserve center Christian Ejiga intercepted Walker at the rim, not only blocking the 6-foot-6-inch human-missile’s shot, but corralling the defensive end to completely end Binghamton’s possession.
“Christian made a huge play defensively to get us a stop in the middle of the paint,” Maine head coach Bob Walsh said later.
Maine would convert one of two free throws at the other end, and 43 seconds later Maine freshman Kevin Little would burry a deep 3-pointer that would give them the win.
Little’s 3-pointer would be the play that everyone remembered – the dagger that helped seal the victory – but according to Walsh, the stuff and rebound by Ejiga, a 6’8” 230 pounder from Lagos, Nigeria, was the game saver.
“I don’t know what happens mentally if they take the lead,” said Walsh. “Christian made a huge help play.”
Ejiga’s first two years in Orono have been a roller coaster to say the least. In his first season, the raw, rough around the edges big man showed flashes, including 4-of-6 shooting against Providence, 10 points against Chattanooga and 10 rebounds against Hartford, but also found himself anchored to the end of the bench down the stretch.
Over the offseason the coaching staff that recruited him was fired and he had to start over again from ground zero with Walsh and his crew, who run a much more structured system and tighter shift. Ejiga registered a “DNP” and did not leave the bench in three of the Black Bears first five games of the season, and played single digits in the other two.
In the seventh game of the year he appeared to have a breakthrough of sorts, logging a season-high 23 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting, to go with eight rebounds and eight blocks. He would register double-digits in nine of the next 11 games, before again being relegated to the end of the bench, playing single-digit minutes in four of the next six games and registering “DNPs” in the other two.
But on Saturday afternoon, Ejiga was given another chance and seized upon it, scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds in 21 minutes. Much more importantly to Walsh, who has been trying to find defense at all costs, Ejiga through his weight around in the post, stopping several drives at the rim and altering many more shots before making his play of the game against Walker.
“Christian has provided a spark for us at times where defensively he’s been in help position, when he’s supposed to be attacking the ball,” said Walsh. “You see those plays where he stands there and gets big and stops a drive. He can really help us with that.”
Ejiga remains a work in progress on the court, but Walsh is starting to see improvement and as long as his young center keeps playing with defensive energy, he’ll keep seeing it rewarded.
“We went with Christian early and he responded defensively and that’s how we won the game,” said Walsh.