March Madness: The 2014-2015 America East basketball season in dunks

With a the NCAA Tournament dreams dashed for seven of the America East’s nine teams, and a day remaining before the March Madness showdown between bitter rivals Albany and Stony Brook for all the marbles, One-Bid Wonders decided to take a look back at the America East basketball season that was in dunks. Take a look and enjoy — all nine America East teams and quite a few players are represented.

Who was the conference’s best dunker? What was the best dunk of the season? Leave us a comment below.

America East men’s basketball Dunks of 2014-2015 from Samuel Perkins on Vimeo.

March Madness: Sam Perkins and Ryan Restivo break down America East basketball

In anticipation of the America East championship and the start of March Madness, which tips off with top-seed Albany facing three-seed Stony Brook at 11 a.m. Saturday, OBW’s Sam Perkins linked up with Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo and the America East’s Jared Hager to take a look back a the season that was, before looking ahead to the championship game that will be.

The trio shared a great deal of laughs, as well as insider insight over the course of the night, with topics ranging from their overall impressions and biggest surprises during the regular season; thoughts on the change in the conference’s post season format, from a single-site tournament to a high-seed host playoff; the best game of the post season; and of course, detailed breakdowns and predictions of the big game itself.

Give it a watch and then flame away at Restivo.

Awards — OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team

New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
New Hampshire freshman Tanner Leissner. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

It was a banner year for America East men’s basketball rookies. In previous years, we had a hard time finding five truly worthy players to fill out an All-Rookie squad. This season, there were another half dozen or so worthy candidates who didn’t make the cut. We admit, we copped out by selecting six frosh for our squad, but every one of them was damn good.

OBW America East men’s basketball All-Rookie Team
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Grant shouldered a huge load all season long for the Retrievers as the teams only ball handler and flourished, leading the league in assists both in conference play (4.2 apg) and overall (4.0 apg) while ranking 19th in scoring in America East games (10.8 ppg).

Trae-Bell Haynes, G, Vermont
Bell-Haynes hit a bit of a wall down the stretch for the Catamounts, but over the course of the season he was completely dynamic as a one-man fast break, ranking second in assists in conference games (4.0 apg) and third overall (3.4 apg), while also shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor.

Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
As a true freshman Leissner established himself as the best and most important player for the best New Hampshire squad to set foot in Ludholm Gymnasium since the mid 90s. Capable of scoring from everywhere on the floor, the 6’7” power forward completely changes the Wildcats offense, ranking sixth in scoring both overall (12.8 ppg) and in league play (13.1 ppg), fourth in overall rebounding (7.4 rpg) and third in rebounding in conference games (8.5 rpg).

Kevin Little, G, Maine
Little missed nine games due to injury, and was gimpy for most of the year, but when he was on the floor, despite often times standing out as the only capable scorer on a depleted Black Bears roster, the dude straight lit it up, ranking third in America East play in scoring at 15.2 points per game (12.5 ppg overall).

Willie Rodriguez, F, Binghamton
Rodriguez is a true America East forward – 6’6”, not particularly athletic, but tough as nails — who finds ways to just get the job done. Rodriguez ranked 11th overall in scoring (11.6 ppg) and eighth overall in rebounding (5.5 rpg), and elevated his game in conference play, ranking eighth in scoring (12.7 ppg) and seventh in rebounding (5.7 rpg).

Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Thomas missed the final seven games of the season with a torn ACL, but before he went down he wasn’t simply THE best rookie in the league, he was one of the best players regardless of class. A 6’2” power forward, Thomas bullied players a half a foot or more taller than him while facing double and triple teams (and even the box-1 on more than one occasion) that only Stony Brook star Jameel Warney saw more of, and still finished the year third in overall scoring (14.3 ppg), fifth in rebounds (6.5 rpg), and sixth in field goal percentage (52.3 percent), while also anchoring the River Hawks defense.

UMBC men’s basketball puts it all together to down Maine

By Corey Johns

Special to OBW from SoMuchSportsBaltimore.

Will Darley. Photo Credit: Corey Johns
Will Darley. Photo Credit: Corey Johns

Everything came together for UMBC men’s basketball on a snowy afternoon in Catonsville Saturday. In game being aired nationally on ESPN3, with plenty of alumni and former players in attendence, the Retrievers got everything last ounce out of everybody they to beat Maine 73-66 in the RAC Arena.

All five Retrievers starters reached double-digits, pushing UMBC to nearly 20 points above their 55 points per game average for just its second 70-plus point performance of the year.

Cody Joyce led the Retrievers with 16 points and Malcolm Brent and Will Darley each nailed three 3-pointers in their 15-point efforts.

“We talk about trying to be at our best this time of the year as we try to prepare for the conference tournament and it looks like we’re trying to play our best basketball right now,” UMBC Head Coach Aki Thomas said. “It’s good to see five guys in double figures and consecutive stops in the second half. As the game got close we played the situation well.”

Fighting to stay out of the bottom of the America East basement, neither team ever truly separated itself from the other on the day. Early in the first half, UMBC led by as many as nine points following a three by Brent in a 10-2. But Maine struck back, going on a nine-point run to tie the game with 9:41 remaining in the first half.

Powered by an assault on the glass, and unconscious shooting from freshman Kevin Little, Maine took a nine-point lead with 3:30 left before halftime. Little was 3-for-3 in the first half and the Black Bears out-rebounded the Retrievers 19-9 during that stretch.

But UMBC’s ability to get inside and either finish or draw a foul kept them in the game. A 9-2 run made it just a two-point game before a floating layup by Till Gloger made it a 35-31 Maine advantage at the break.

UMBC was able to keep the game close despite being manhandled on the glass by executing their inside-out offense. The team made five three’s in the first stanza, three of those came from Darley, who going into the game made only six this season.

“You got to be able to shoot the ball,” Thomas said. “It’s nice to say we play inside-out but the ball has to go in. Guys have to honor shooters, that way we can spread the floor and get it inside to Cody.”

And they sure did.

Joyce led the team with 10 field goal attempts and also with six free throw attempts in his effort. And in the second half, Darley and Houston were able to get inside as well. Darley, who missed nearly a month and a half with a knee injury this year, has been coming on strong down the stretch. Darley’s 15 points and six assists were both career-highs, and he also added seven boards to help stem the tide on the glass in the second half.

“It helps having Will Darley out there,” Thomas said. “He’s smart, makes some shots and he was key in a lot of different ways. They did a decent job fronting Cody and trying to take him out of the game but I thought Will and Devarick flashed up to the high post, made some really good entry passes and made some shots.”

Jourdan Grant also contributed in areas he normally doesn’t, as the 6’2” guard ripped down eight rebounds to go along with his 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting and five assists.

The Retrievers shot 59.1-percent from the floor in the second half and made more than twice as many free throws as Maine attempted. They also beat Maine on the boards, 17-15, in the second stanza.

UMBC opened up the second half with back-to-back three’s from Houston and Brent. And after the Black Bears’ defense spread out to defend the perimeter, Joyce followed with a layup inside to give UMBC a 39-35 lead.

With 3:45 remaining, Little hit a fast-break layup off a steal by Aaron Calixte to tie the contests at 57 a piece. But on the next possession Brent missed a three, only to have Darley corral the offensive board and kick it back to Brent for the layup to retake the lead. Darley followed it up with two made free throws following a defensive rebound off a missed jumper by Little a few seconds later.

UMBC did not miss a shot, from the field or the line, for the final 3:23 and converted 10-straight free throws down the stretch.

Houston was the fifth Retriever to reach double digits, scoring 10 points. But where he really shined as on the defensive end., setting a new career-high with five steals while constantly matched up against either Zarko Valjarevic or Little, two of Maine’s biggest offensive threats, and allowed only nine points during the entire game on shots taken against him.

“He can guard anybody,” Thomas said. “We always put him on somebody we feel can blow the game open against us and he never lets us down. It’s great when he can play like that and shut people down. Zarko and those guys are more than capable of blowing the game open.”

UMBC has just two more regular season games remaining on their schedule. On Wednesday they will host Albany in their final home game of the year before traveling to Binghamton for their regular season finale.

America East men’s basketball roundup 2/17/15

The America East men’s basketball Tuesday night lineup saw a pair of preseason America East favorites who had been floundering, badly, heading into the home stretch grab a pair of much needed wins. Here’s a look at the action:

Stony Brook 59 Albany 56
The Seawolves needed this game. Badly. Really, really badly. Star center Jameel Warney scored 20 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and sent five shots packing, junior point guard Carson Puriefoy added 14 – albeit not particularly efficiently – and junior forward Rayshaun McGrew ripped down 14 rebounds for Stony Brook. But the difference maker for the Seawolves was seldom used red-shirt junior Scott King, who tied his season high by scoring 12 points – more points than he had scored in Stony Brook’s last eight games, combined – on 5-of-6 shooting.

“When coach [Pikiell] puts me into the game, he expects me to shoot the ball. When I made the first one, I got into a decent rhythm. I just tried to get some rebounds and bring energy off the bench,” said King of the performance.

Albany saw off shooting nights across the board, hitting just 20-of-58 shots (34.5 percent) from the floor. Sam Rowley and Ray Saunders scored 12 points a piece, Dallas Ennema added 11, and Evan Singletary added eight, but the quartet shot just 15 for 46 from the floor.

The loss snapped Albany’s 13 game winning streak and gave the Great Danes their first conference loss on the year to 12 wins, but it wasn’t particularly unexpected, as the team had won several close games as of late. That, coupled with the emotional homecoming of Peter Hooley after spending nearly a month back home in Australia, to be by his mother’s side before she passed away from colon cancer, perhaps made the Great Danes due for an off night.

On the other side, the Seawolves needed a win badly against a top-four team in the America East, and they needed to win a game exactly like this: By getting contributions from players not named “Jameel Warney.”

With three games left to play and a one-game lead over second place Vermont, the Great Danes remain in the driver’s seat for the regular season title and home court advantage in the conference playoffs, but the Catamounts have been playing arguably the best basketball in the league over the past two weeks and another slip up could see Albany take a drop in the standings.

Hartford 55 UMBC 52
This wasn’t so much a must-win as it was an absolutely, positively, no-bleeping-way can you lose game for the host Hawks, who nearly managed to find a way to fall on their home court to a crippled Retrievers squad.

Sophomore point guard Justin Graham scored 10 points, his fifth straight game in double figures and eighth in his last 11, after going the first 15 games of the season without reaching double-digits, and seniors Wes Cole and Corban Wroe came off the bench to combine for 24 points.

Hartford wasn’t particularly sharp from the floor, hitting 37.5 and 22.7 percent of their shots, but the Retrievers were even worse, hitting just 30.4 and 21.4 percent, respectively.

On another night against another team, you might be able to chalk the Hawks win up to gritty defense, but against a UMBC squad that is suiting up just eight serviceable bodies, only seven of them scholarship players and only a handful legit Division I talents, it’s hard to put much stock in the win from any angle – especially from a senior-laden Hartford squad that was supposed to be competing for an America East title but now sits in fifth place at 6-7 in league play.

For UMBC, this was yet another herculean effort for a team showing more grit, guts and heart than any other in the league. Power forward Cody Joyce scored 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds, senior forward Devarick Houston added 10 points, 10 boards, three steals and two blocks and freshman Malcolm Brent added 13 points.

OBW America East Player of the Night
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook

20 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks, 9-of-18 shooting.

OBW America East Rookie of the Night:
Malcolm Brent, G, UMBC

13 points, 4-of-8 shooting, 2-of-5 three-point shooting, five rebounds

America East Standings
Team conference record (overall record)
1. Albany 12-1 (18-8)
2. Vermont 11-2 (16-10)
3. Stony Brook 9-4 (18-10)
4. New Hampshire 9-4 (16-10)
5. Hartford 6-7 (13-13)
6. UMass Lowell 5-8 (11-15)
7. Binghamton 3-10 (4-24)
8. Maine 2-10 (3-22)
9. UMBC 1-12 (3-23)

OBW America East Power Rankings v12

hooley2

With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the water is rising – or falling – to its own level in the America East and the conference’s playoff standings are beginning to take shape.

With just four regular season games remaining and a two game lead over Vermont, Albany remains firmly in the drivers seat to secure home court throughout the playoffs, with the Catamounts as the only team with a true chance of overtaking the Danes. New Hampshire has also insured itself of no worse than a fourth place finish, while Stony Brook has all but locked up another spot in the top for. And while the final order in the top four remains up for grabs, it’s a safe bet that the winner of the conference playoffs is going to come from that quartet of teams.

So without further ado, here’s a look around the league with our latest America East Power Rankings

1. Albany (18-7, 12-0 in AE)
Results: W 62-46 at Binghamton; W 65-59 at NJIT
This week: Tuesday vs Stony Brook, Friday vs Hartford
Albany’s winning streak is now at 13 games – the program’s Division I era record – 12 of them coming in America East play. But it was the non-conference win, Friday night at NJIT, that was perhaps the biggest – and certainly most emotional – of the team’s season, as star Peter Hooley made his return after an eight game absence, during which time he returned home to be by his mother’s side as she battled colon cancer, before laying her to rest after her passing. In Hooley’s absence, senior forward Sam Rowley established himself as the team’s go to scorer, and junior point guard Evan Singletary shouldered Hooley’s normal load as the team’s big shot extraordinaire. Hooley played limited minutes coming off the bench, but cracked double-figures while surpassing the 1,000 career point plateau. If Albany can get Hooley back to form, the Danes are easily the odds-on favorites to win the league playoffs and punch their ticket to the NCAAs.

2. Vermont (16-10, 11-2 in AE)
Results: W 96-53 vs UMass Lowell; W 74-51 vs UMBC
This week: Wednesday at Binghamton
Don’t look now, but in the Great Danes’ shadows there is another America East team riding emotional to an inspiring winning steak. The Catamounts have now won five straight games, four of them since top-ranked recruit Josh Speidel suffered a traumatic head injury in a car accident. And while the Great Danes have been finding ways to win in the closing minutes and seconds, the Catamounts have been straight smacking people. Freshman point guard Trae Bell-Haynes has hit a bit of a wall down the stretch, but fellow frosh Cam Ward and Brandon Hatton have picked up the baton and carried on, while junior center Ethan O’Day is playing the best basketball of his career, scoring at will around the post. The Catamounts have officially joined the Great Danes in distancing themselves from the rest of the America East pack.

3. New Hampshire (16-10, 9-4 in AE)
Results: W 76-70 (OT) at Hartford; W 66-48 vs Binghamton
This week: Saturday at UMass Lowell
This is officially the best season the Wildcats have experienced in two decades. With a win over Binghamton Saturday, UNH assured itself winning seasons both in league play and overall for the first time since the 1994-1995 season. Three more wins and the Wildcats will surpass the 94-95 team’s win total in conference play and tie it’s overall number of wins (19). The secret sauce behind New Hampshire’s success: Toughness, energy and selfless play according to head coach Bill Herrion. Sophomore forward Jacoby Armstrong’s return to form, paired with freshman stud Tanner Leissner, gives the Wildcats one of the best front courts in the league, senior gunner Matt Miller remains the best shooter in the America East, and Herrion has revived his trademark defense – arguably the best in the league. The Wildcats remain unproven, and no one of the roster has experienced post season success, but make no mistake, this is a team no one wants to play in the post season.

4. Stony Brook (17-10, 8-4 in AE)
Results: W 73-61 at UMBC; W 80-52 vs Maine
This week: Tuesday at Albany; Saturday vs Binghamton
The Seawolves got two huge shots in the arm on Saturday in the form of a career-high 24 points from raw but talented red-shirt freshman wing Roland Nyama and 15 rebounds from junior forward Rayshaun McGrew. Whether those performances can translate against the top of the conference – as opposed to the dregs of the league – remains to be seen, but if Stony Brook is going to make a run at the first NCAA Tournament appearances in league history, they are going to need to get consistent play from their supporting cast. Junior center Jameel Warney is a horse, but against the crème of the America East crop, it has been proven that Warney can’t do it alone.

5. Hartford (12-13, 5-7 in AE)
Results L 76-70 (OT) vs New Hampshire; L 69-63 at UMass Lowell
This week: Tuesday vs UMBC; Friday at Albany
Hartford got a huge boost over the weekend with the return of star senior forward Mark Nwakamma, who went down two weeks ago against Vermont for what was originally feared would be a season-ending knee injury. Hartford needs Nwakamma on the court, demanding double teams and spacing the floor to open up the perimeter to their shooters. Unfortunately, even with Nwakamma on the court, the Hawks haven’t proven they can consistently knock down enough shots to be a real threat, as evidenced by Saturday’s loss against a UMass Lowell team playing without its top talent.

6. UMass Lowell (11-15, 5-8 in AE play)
Results: W 67-51 vs UMBC; L 69-59 at Albany
This week: Wednesday vs Maine; Saturday vs New Hampshire
The River Hawks continue to inspire as one of the league’s best stories (they would be the best if not for the inspiring seasons of Albany and Vermont). When do everything freshman star Jahad Thomas (who was running away with the Rookie of the Year award) went down with a torn ACL two weeks ago, the River Hawks season was supposed to be over. Instead, they’ve kept fighting, with freshmen Matt Harris and Brad Schaub stepping up their games, while seniors Kerry Weldon, Marco Banegas-Flores and Chad Holley are going out the way all seniors should: leaving everything on the floor. Lowell has now surpassed last season’s win total despite playing with far less overall talent and experience – a testament to head coach Pat Duquette’s abilities.

7. Binghamton (4-24, 3-10 in AE)
Results: L 62-46 vs Albany; L 66-48 at New Hampshire
This week: Wednesday vs Vermont; Saturday at Stony Brook
The tough season continues for the banged up Bearcats, who are back on the snide having lost four straight. Binghamton’s freshman class has shown ability across the board – from Romello Walker’s athleticism and energy, to Justin McFadden’s defensive ability, Willie Rodriguez’ toughness, Dusan Perovic’s scoring and Bobby Ahearn’s toughness – but they can’t avoid the injury and illness bug, and haven’t been able to field enough healthy – let alone experienced – bodies to compete day in and day out.

8. Maine (3-22, 2-10 in AE)
Results: L 80-52 at Stony Brook
This week: Wednesday at UMass Lowell; Saturday at UMBC
There’s a common trend among the bottom three in the league, and that is rebuilding programs who are lacking enough healthy bodies to compete for 40 minutes. Maine continues to fight the good fight under first year head coach Bob Walsh, but the team is battling against a culture of apathy engrained over the past decade, and injuries to key players. Freshman scoring guard Kevin Little has been electric for stretches, and freshman point guard Aaron Calixte is cool under pressure. That duo, combined with next year’s incoming class, should give Black Bear fans hope of a brighter tomorrow.

9. UMBC (3-22, 1-11 in AE)
Results: L 3-61 vs Stony Brook; L 74-51 at Vermont
This week: Tuesday at Hartford; Saturday vs Maine
You have to be impressed by the job head coach Aki Thomas, his staff, and his players have done when staring down the most daunting and insurmountable odds in the league. No team has shown more heart over the season than UMBC, which has somehow found the resolve to show up and fight with everything they have every day despite suiting up just eight bodies – only four or five of whom are really Division I quality players.

OBW America East Player of the Week
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany

Rowley scored 36 points, ripped down 23 rebounds and dished out five assists in a pair of Great Danes wins, including a 20-point 15-rebound effort against Binghamton, to help Albany push its winning streak to 13 straight.

America East Rookie of the Week
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire

Stony Brook’s Roland Nyama had the best game of the week, going off for a career-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting in a route of Maine, but Leissner had the best week, scoring 30 points and pulling down 21 rebounds while playing a whopping 81 minutes in a pair of Wildcats wins, including a 14-point 15-rebound effort against Binghamton.

OBW America East Fab Five
Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont

OBW America East Frosh Five
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Kevin Little, G, Maine
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell

America East men’s basketball roundup 2/14/15

With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, every game is magnified for America East teams jockeying for position in the standings and seedings in the America East Playoffs — seedings that are more important than at any other time in recent history with the new, high-seed host format.

With just a handful of conference games left, Albany has distanced themselves from the pack at 12-0 in league play, and a regular season title and home court advantage throughout the playoffs would appear to be theirs to lose, with an 11-2 Vermont squad as the only other team with a realistic shot.

Here’s a look at sights, sounds and results from a huge Saturday of hoops with the America East men’s basketball roundup.

New Hampshire 66 Binghamton 48
The Wildcats were expected to roll over the Bearcats and they did just that, but make no mistake, this was a huge win for the players, the program, and head coach Bill Herrion. Now standing at 16-10 on the year and 9-4 in America East play, New Hampshire has officially clinched a winning record for the first time in Herrion’s tenure and the first time since the 1994-1995 season (There is no scenario where the Wildcats could lose more than four America East contests without a win, or five total games including a post-season birth without a victory, ensuring a winning season).

Freshman forward Tanner Leissner posted his fourth double-double of the season and third in the past five games he has played, scoring 14 points to go with a career-high 15 rebounds to pace four Wildcats in double-figures.

The undermanned Bearcats got 10 points apiece from sophomore guards Yoseph Yacob and Marlon Beck II and freshman forward Bobby Ahearn, but were held to just 27.8 percent from the floor (15-of-54) by the vaunted Wildcats defense.

UMass Lowell 69 Hartford 63
Valentine’s Day was a huge win for the host River Hawks and an outright bad loss for the visiting Hawks. Despite playing without the team’s offensive and defensive epicenter, freshman forward Jahad Thomas, lost for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, UMass Lowell continued to play with tremendous heart and effort, outworking and out-willing Hartford all night while executing a methodical game plan on both ends of the floor.

Led by senior forward Kerry Weldon’s 15 points – among them an emphatic dunk – eight different River Hawks scored, including 13 points off the bench from sharp-shooting freshman Matt Harris, nine points from reserve junior guard D.J. Mlachnik and eight points apiece from Brad Schaub, Marco Banegas-Flores and Chad Holley. Defensively the Rive Hawks held the bombs-away Hawks to just 24 percent from downtown (6-of-25) and 42.9 percent from the floor (24-of-56), while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from downtown.

For Hartford, the loss – the team’s sixth in its last seven games – was another painful reminder of the team’s shortcomings in what was supposed to the “their year.” With six seniors on the roster – including star forward Mark Nwakamma, heart and soul guard/forward Corban Wroe, and fiery leader and point guard Yolonzo Moore II – Hartford was supposed to be built to compete for a title this season. But with the daunting task of a complete roster rebuild next year, the Hawks have not only failed to build on their momentum from the past two years – a pair of 17 win seasons in which they won 10 regular season America East games – but have now begun a serious back slide.

Stony Brook 80 Maine 52
Red-shirt freshman forward Roland Nyama exploded for a career-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go with five rebounds. Junior forward Rayshaun McGrew added a 15-rebound, 10-point double-double, junior center Jameel Warney posted a double-double of his own with 13 points and 11 rebounds and junior point guard Carson Puriefoy chipped in 12 points.

After disheartening losses to New Hampshire, in a game they never competed, and Vermont in a game they coughed up a massive second half lead on their home court, the Seawolves’ have benefitted from back-to-back basement dwellers, following up a 12-point win over UMBC with a massacre of Maine. The pair of beatings over a pair of massively undermanned and overmatched squads should go a long way in restoring the Seawolves’, but it’s hard to gauge how much of their recent play will translate against the top of the league (Stony Brook’s record currently stands at 1-4 against first place Albany, second place Vermont and third place New Hampshire).

Getting production from players not named “Jameel Warney” is a must if Stony Brook is going to make a run at the NCAAs, and while their supporting cast has proven they can dominate the have-nots of the league, they are going to need to show consistency against the America East “haves.”

For Maine, this was a game where the Black Bears – at the bottom of a ground up program build under first year head coach Bob Walsh — were simply and completely overmatched

Vermont 74 UMBC 51
The Catamounts have now won five straight games, including four emotional wins in honor of recruit Josh Speidel who was severely injured in a Feb. 1 car accident.

Junior forward Ethan O’Day continued his inspired play, matching his career-high with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds and three blocks in just 25 minutes, and Vermont shot a blistering 51.9 percent from the floor (28-of-54). Nine Catamounts broke into the scorers column and 10 played double-digit minutes as Vermont turned a six-point first half lead into a route.

Dre Wills continued to shine as the Catamounts do-everything star and lynchpin, scoring 10 points to go with four assists, two rebounds, a steal and a block.

For UMBC, the game one again highlighted the Retrievers horrific lack of depth following a litany of injuries and suspensions, but even more amazing their indomitable heart and hustle. Playing just seven players, one of them walk-on Ben Grace, the Retrievers gave Vermont everything the Catamounts could handle for a half, before running out of gas in the second half.

Nightly awards:
OBW America East Player of the Game

Ethan O’Day, Jr., F, Vermont
22 points, 9-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds, three blocks

OBW America East Rookie of the Game
Roland Nyama, F, Stony Brook : 24 points, 9-of-12 shooting, 6-of-8 3pt, five rebounds

Standings
Team – Conference Record (Overall Record)
1. Albany 12-0 (18-7)
2. Vermont 11-2 (16-10)
3. New Hampshire 9-4 (16-10)
4. Stony Brook 8-4 (17-10)
5. Hartford 5-7 (12-13)
6. UMass Lowell 508 (11-15)
7. Binghamton 3-10 (4-24)
8. Maine 2-10 (3-22)
9. UMBC 1-11 (3-22)

OBW video — there’s nothing small about the game of Maine freshman Kevin Little

Black Bears fans haven’t had much to cheer about this season in Orono, with a battered, bruised and beaten University of Maine men’s basketball team currently sitting at 3-22 on the season. One of the few bright spots for first year head coach Bob Walsh and his complete rebuild of the Black Bears’ program has been diminutive freshman Kevin Little, who despite his small size at a listed 5’11” packs a knockout punch as an explosive scoring two-guard.

OBW’s Joe Neveux recently sat down with Little for a profile on the Wyandanch, New York, native who currently leads the Black Bears in scoring at 11.8 points per game. Little, who has scored in double-digits in six of Maine’s last seven games, including three games of 20 or more points, talked about a range of topics, including how basketball kept him out of trouble as a kid growing up in a rough neighborhood, and his on the court idol, Allen Iverson. Take a look:

OBW America East Power Rankings v11

With no team having more than six conference games remaining, we are officially in the home stretch of the regular season, with the America East Playoffs bearing down on teams like a bespectacled Austin Ganly on a helpless defender in the open court. At this point, there is a clear separation between the top four in the league standings and everyone else, with that quartet looking like the only teams with a true shot at winning the whole thing and going dancing.

So without further delay, here’s a look at how the teams stack up with the latest OBW America East Power Rankings.

1. Albany (16-7, 11-0 in AE)
Results: W 63-62 vs New Hampshire; W 69-59 vs UMass Lowell
This week: Tuesday at Binghamton; Friday at NJIT
What more can be said about the Great Danes at this point? Playing in the shadows of tragedyColon cancer that took the life of Great Dane’s star Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue, and has kept Hooley from the team for roughly three weeks – Albany has found a way to go on a remarkable run, opening the conference play by going a perfect 11-0. In Hooley’s absence, senior forward Sam Rowley has entrenched himself as a near unstoppable scorer in the low post, and JuCo transfer Evan Singletary has stepped into the spotlight as a star scoring point guard who will take – and make – the biggest shots of the game without conscience or remorse. The Great Danes have gotten enough from their role players – the bigs play physical, JuCo wing Ray Saunders locking down defenders – to continue to win, but they may be running a little bit on fumes as of late, eeking out a win at home over a Tanner Leissner-less UNH squad and being given a real game by a Jahad Thomas-less UMass Lowell. Hooley is expected to return following the Binghamton game and make no mistake this is the America East team to beat.

2. Vermont (914-10, 9-2 in AE)
Results: W 68-49 vs Maine; W 57-48 at Stony Brook
This week: Wednesday vs UMass Lowell; Saturday vs UMBC
The Catamounts became the latest America East team to be reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, basketball is just a game, and there are things in life so much bigger than wins and losses, when top Vermont recruit Josh Speidel was critically injured in a car accident on Feb. 1. Since the accident, which left Speidel in critical but stable condition recovering in an Indiana hospital, Vermont has played inspired basketball in their future teammate’s honor, destroying Maine at home, before roaring back from a 17-point halftime deficit to KO Stony Brook on the road. According to head coach John Becker, “it seems like it’s a different group of 5-6 guys every night who step up and play their best basketball,” and against Stony Brook, three of the biggest heroes proved to be star center Ethan O’Day, reserve freshman shooter Brandon Hatton, and all guts no glory freshman Josh McRoberts. The one constant throughout the season for Vermont has been shooting guard/flying tank Dre Wills, arguably the league’s Defensive Player of the Year who does literally everything every night out for the Catamounts. While Vermont needs to get consistent play from their front court offensively, the Catamounts remain powered by frenetic back court defense.

3. New Hampshire (14-10, 7-4 in AE)
Results: L 63-62 at Albany; W 80-46 vs UMBC
This week: Tuesday at Hartford; Saturday vs Binghamton
The Wildcats are officially no joke, and a team whose sum is far greater than any individual part, as proven by their last second, one-point road loss at Albany despite playing without their best all around player (and far and away best scorer) freshman forward Tanner Leissner. While the Wildcats have gotten back to head coach Bill Herrion’s bread and butter – ferocious team defense for 94 feet – they have a completely new look and new attitude from any previous team Herrion’s nine-year tenure, capable of scoring around the hoop courtesy of Leissner and Jacoby Armstrong, in the mid-range (Leissner), and from downtown thanks to Matt Miller and Daniel Dion. They can also create off the dribble behind Dion and Jaleen Smith and finish the fast break with authority with players like Ronnel Jordan. And, considering various nagging injuries that have bothered them for much of the year, they still haven’t hit their ceiling.

4. Stony Brook (15-10, 6-4 in AE)
Results: L 57-48 vs Vermont
This Week: Wednesday at UMBC; Saturday vs Maine
Following a loss to Vermont that would be impossible to call anything other than bad after coughing up a 17-point second half lead (OK, some stronger language than bad might be appropriate) Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell was steadfast in his resolve that he feels the best is yet to come for the team. Me, I’m pretty darn concerned about Stony Brook, which has now lost two straight and currently sits at 1-4 against the three teams above them in the standings. Center Jameel Warney remains an automatic double-double and the most dominant player in the league, but he simply can not win games alone against the top of the league and he’s getting almost nothing from his supporting cast. Furthermore, as was the case in each of the past two seasons, Warney appears to be hitting a bit of a wall, as a season’s-worth of double and triple teams may be catching up to him again.

5. Hartford (12-11, 5-5 in AE)
Results W 62-61 at Binghamton
This week: Tuesday vs New Hampshire; Saturday at UMass Lowell
Plain and simple, Hartford is a bad team without Mark Nwakamma, a reality the Hawks were forced to face for the better part of the last two games after a knee injury to the team’s star senior forward and offensive epicenter. The good news: Nwakamma will hopefully return to the lineup Tuesday night. The bad news: While the Hawks are markedly better with Nwakamma in the lineup, they haven’t exactly been a good team with him either. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the season, playing a rotation that features six seniors, at this point Hartford is what it is: A team that can get hot from behind the arc and beat anyone, but seems unlikely to be able to sustain that type of white-hot shooting for any consistent period of time – certainly not three straight games in March, which is a prerequiste to punch through to the NCAAs. The odds of Hartford undergoing a metamorphosis into a complete basketball team at this late juncture are pretty slim.

6. UMass Lowell (10-14, 4-7 in AE play)
Results: W 67-51 vs UMBC; L 69-59 at Albany
This week: Wednesday at Vermont; Saturday vs Hartford
The River Hawks lost red-shirt freshman Jahad Thomas for the remainder of the season two weeks ago at Binghamton to a torn ACL – his second in as many years. To call Thomas’ loss a huge blow to the River Hawks is a massive understatement: The 6’2” 235 pound battering ram had emerged as the America East’s version of Charles Barkley (or the reincarnation of former America East star Darryl Proctor). Without Thomas, Lowell will struggle to find consistent scoring. But the River Hawks defend like crazy, play with discipline, and execute their offense, and in the bottom half of the AE that will still win you some games.

7. Binghamton (4-22, 3-8 in AE)
Results: L 62-61 vs Hartford; L 67-64 at Maine
This Week: Tuesday at Albany; Saturday at New Hampshire
Binghamton is still struggling to execute consistently, as evident by their loss against previously hapless Maine. But the Bearcats are playing a lot of very young but very talented players a lot of minutes, and sooner than later the experience they are gaining is going to start turning into wins.

8. Maine (3-21, 2-9 in AE)
Results: L 68-59 at Vermont; W 67-64 vs Binghamton
This week: Saturday at Stony Brook
After competing for the first half against the likes of New Hampshire, Albany and Vermont only to get annihilated after the intermission, the Black Bears found a way to stem the second half tide and score a much needed win over the visiting Bearcats. Head coach Bob Walsh inherited a completely bare cupboard, and a team with a decade-old culture where subpar effort, surrendering easily, and accepting losing. Breaking such ingrained habits isn’t easy, and Walsh more than has his work cut out for him, but Maine is taking steps in the right direction, and it likely is no coincidence that Walsh’s two recruits – explosive scoring guard Kevin Little and heady, steady point guard Aaron Calixte – appear to be the team’s two best players.

9. UMBC (3-20, 1-9 in AE)
Results: L 67-51 at UMass Lowell; L 80-46 at New Hampshire
This week: Wednesday vs Stony Brook; Saturday at Vermont
Head coach Aki Thomas, his coaching staff, and what’s left of his team, because they are all working harder than perhaps any other team I have ever seen and they have so little tangible to show for it. At this point, the Retrievers’ plight has been well told: Down to seven healthy bodies, only five of them scholarship players, after a rash of injuries, suspensions and other misfortunes, UMBC is completely gassed at this point, yet they keep finding the courage and resolve everyday to dig down deep and fight. It sounds corny, but the fact that Thomas has his team playing so hard is a huge victory in its own right.

OBW America East Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week
Kevin Little, Fr., G, Maine
In two games, Little played 79 of 80 available minutes for the Black Bears, scoring 38 points to go with nine rebounds while shouldering a massive load for Maine, all while playing on what is rumored to be a badly injured lower leg/foot. The fearless freshman gunner drilled what would prove to be the game winner for the Black Bears with 41 seconds remaining against Binghamton on Saturday, and spent the entire week playing with veteran confidence and swagger. This kid is going to be good.

OBW America East Fab Five
*Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
**Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Tanner Leissner, Fr., F, New Hampshire
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Evan Singletary, Jr., G, Albany
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont

*Peter Hooley has missed the past four games after taking an indefinite leave of absence from Albany to be with his mother, Sue, who passed away on Friday. During his absence Hooley is not an “active” member of the Fab Five, but his play up until his leave was stellar and he had entrenched himself on the team, thus we feel he still deserves to be recognized.

**UMass Lowell red-shirt freshman forward Jahad Thomas has been, according to raw numbers and advanced statistics, easily one of the five best players in the America East all season long, ranking second in points and fifth in rebounds, and scoring at an insanely effective clip despite constant double and triple teams. However, Thomas will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and thus will likely fall out of First Team All-Conference contention due to sheer games played.

OBW America East Frosh Five
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Kevin Little, G, Maine
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell

Standing his ground: Christian Ejiga helps Maine break through

Maine center Christian Ejiga. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Maine center Christian Ejiga. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

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.