HARTFORD, Conn. — After an upset loss to New Hampshire in the first round of the America East men’s basketball tournament Saturday night, thoughts drifted back to the beginning of the season for the University of Maine.

The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth among nine teams in the America East preseason coaches poll, but they far exceeded those expectations, falling just one victory shy of the program’s third 20-win season.

So while the season didn’t end quite the way the Black Bears hoped, there were plenty of good things to remember after improving from 9-21 in 2008-09 to 19-11 this winter.

“We took that to heart,” junior center Sean McNally said of the preseason poll. “It started last spring. Our coaches told us ‘From now on it’s going to be all about winning.’ People went home and played ball. In the fall it was about winning. I have a great deal of respect for this team, how hard we work.”

Maine handily beat New Hampshire twice during the regular season, but on Saturday the Black Bears were shut down on the perimeter and struggled against the Wildcats’ dogged defensive pressure.

After leading for most of the first half, Maine fell behind early in the second half and lost 68-57.

“Our guys are hurting right now. They really wanted to get to the next round and have a chance to play Vermont again,” said Maine Coach Ted Woodward. “But these guys have worked very hard all season long. I think they deserve the success they’ve had.”

Woodward had some simple words to share with his team afterward. He told them they should be proud of how hard they worked this year, learn from what went wrong and let it drive them through the offseason and into next year.

“We’re going to be back in this situation again. We need to learn from it,” said Woodward. “They have confidence in the things they do now. And their hunger level now increases even more.”

Maine loses just one senior, point guard Junior Bernal.

Bernal became the first Maine player to eclipse 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists. He wasn’t flashy, but he was consistent and a strong leader.

“I enjoyed my career in Maine. I wouldn’t do this over anywhere else,” said Bernal.

“I’m not satisfied about the game. But I am satisfied I came to Maine and the people I’ve met.”

Replacing him will be paramount.

“We’ve got some big shoes to fill,” said Woodward. “A number of guys will continue to fill those shoes, but at the same time recruiting is a key to make sure you have all your parts covered. We’ll look at that as we get to the springtime.

McNally will return as Maine’s top threat inside, and Gerald McLemore is among the league’s best perimeter players.

McLemore was among the national leaders in 3-pointers with 100 during the regular season but hit just two against New Hampshire.

“We have some bright spots we can continue to build around (for) the future and we’ll continue to do that,” said Woodward.

“I think you’re going to see us here in the same position next year,” said McNally. “Next year I hope we’re going to come out with a better outcome. We’re never going to quit.”

 

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

[email protected]