Survive and advance. Punch your ticket to the big dance. March Madness.
For those sick of shoveling snow, early March can be dreary. But for those involved with college basketball, this is the time for dreaming about upsets, buzzer-beaters and improbable tournament runs.
Justin Edwards is no different.
A sophomore guard at the University of Maine, Edwards leads a Black Bears men’s basketball team seeking its first NCAA tournament berth. The road starts in the America East quarterfinals that begin Saturday in Albany, N.Y.
Fifth-seeded Maine (11-18) will face No. 4 Albany (21-10) in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday night at SEFCU Arena, Albany’s home court. The semifinals are scheduled for Sunday in Albany and the championship game next Saturday at the home of the highest remaining seed.
The America East tournament champion gains automatic entry into the NCAA tournament.
“I definitely think about going there a lot,” said Edwards, whose 29 points in the regular-season finale (a 79-74 loss at New Hampshire) earned him the league scoring title. “If there’s any pressure on us, that’s what it is.”
Not only have the Black Bears failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, they’re reluctantly riding a seven-year winless streak in the conference playoffs. They last advanced to the conference semifinals in 2005 and to the finals in 2004 (a 19-point loss to a Vermont team led by Taylor Coppenrath).
Maine went 6-10 in America East this season, including a split with Albany (9-7 conference). Maine lost 76-63 in Albany in early January but won 66-52 in Orono in early February.
“We know it will be a tough road game,” Edwards said. “We just want to come out strong and do what we do best.”
Against Albany, that means putting pressure on the Great Danes’ backcourt tandem of seniors Mike Black and Jacob Iati. Black scored a career-high 28 points and Iati added 16 in the victory at Albany. In Orono, the Black Bears held Black to 16 and Iati to five points.
“Just being physical with them and not letting their guards get anything easy,” Edwards said of the difference in the two games. “Not letting them get what they want.”
Edwards finished the regular season with a scoring average of 16.7 points per game, as did Binghamton freshman Jordan Reed. More precisely, it was 16.67 for Reed and 16.69 for Edwards, whose average would have fallen to 16.64 if one free throw over the course of the season hadn’t dropped.
Edwards said he didn’t realize how close the scoring race was, although his mother, back home in Ontario, was all over it.
“She told me to try and score 30 (before the UNH game),” Edwards said. “I guess it means more to my mom. I don’t really care about that. I just want to win.”
The last time a Maine player led the conference in scoring was 1989-90 when Dean Smith, a native of Dover-Foxcroft, averaged 19.1 points per game. Smith went on to win the Walter Byers Award as the NCAA’s top scholar-athlete with a 3.864 grade-point average in electrical engineering.
The America East women’s basketball tournament will be held concurrently in Albany, but the Maine women opted not to take part in the wake of their frightening bus crash last week.
“I think that was a very tough decision for them,” Edwards said. “Obviously they’re not feeling well. I think there’s a lot of post-trauma stuff.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: