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January 4, 2013

Peter Buehner Photo

Justin Edwards may be just 6-foot-3 but he still can soar, as he does with this dunk against Florida Gulf Coast University earlier this season.

Steve Solloway: Edwards earns points as a leader

ORONO - The ball would not fall through the basket. Justin Edwards was missing on 3-point shots and on layups and anything in between.

You searched Edwards' face for tell-tale signs of frustration or discouragement. He betrayed no emotion, except for the flash of a grin when the University of Maine resisted all of Boston University's attempts to beat them on their home court.

"If it wasn't happening for me," said Edwards, the high-scoring sophomore point guard. "I wanted to do everything I could to help my teammates. Play defense, get them the ball, anything."

He was saying the right words after Maine beat BU 63-58 Wednesday night. But then, you're learning Edwards usually says and does the right things. The kid with the soft and precise Canadian accent is no longer deferring to the upperclassmen. He can lead even when he doesn't score. And he can certainly score.

Edwards dropped a season-high 30 points on Northeastern in late November. He scored 26 and 27 points in Maine's most recent wins over Quinnipiac on Dec. 29 and Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 22. After 13 games and not including Wednesday's 10-point performance, Edwards' scoring average was 18.5. He's also averaging about 4 assists a game.

"He has an unselfishness about him that his teammates recognize," said Doug Leichner, Maine's associate head coach. "I've been around a lot of scorers who can be loners. That's not Justin."

Acting on a tip, Leichner went to Whitby, Ontario, near Toronto to watch Edwards play for his high school team. Although Edwards certainly wasn't a secret. He was touted as the eighth-best high school player in Canada.

"After the game, I had to measure the hoops to make sure they really were 10 feet off the court," said Leichner." Edwards, not a very big player at 6-foot-3, made the baskets appear two feet shorter.

Edwards listened closely when Leichner made his pitch to come to Maine. He asked questions. His parents asked questions. Mom attended Indiana University and competed in the high jump. Dad played basketball at Syracuse for a year before returning to Canada.

When Edwards made his recruiting visit to the Maine campus, a blizzard was raging. That a professor of kinesiology -- Edwards' major -- drove through the storm to talk with him had an impact.

"People say I can sell snow to a lobsterman," said Leichner. "I don't know about that. I just told Justin he could have an impact right away. He would have to wait at the other schools who were recruiting him.

Missouri and Fresno State were two in particular. You can still find two-year-old Internet message boards where incredulous fans of those schools tried to understand why Edwards chose Maine, a school that has never qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament. Seventeen schools, including George Washington University, Georgia Tech and Marquette, showed some interest in Edwards.

"Justin knew what he wanted," said Leichner, who didn't have a hard time selling him to Coach Ted Woodward. "We stayed with him. It is possible to recruit the best players to Maine. You just have to find the right fit.

"Justin has this wow factor. He has charisma. I was just amazed at what he can do with the ball," said Leichner. "He has a great personality. He can lighten the mood in an instant and then get back to business. He got me at practice. 'Coach, your shoe's untied.' I looked down. He's infectious."

Edwards has a sock collection that's impressive for its bold colors and -- ahem -- fashion statements. His favorite pair show the American flag.

After playing nearly all of December on the road, the Maine men came home to open their America East Conference schedule Wednesday night. Against nemesis Boston University and in front of an announced crowd of 950. With most students away on semester break, Alfond Arena didn't warm up until the final three minutes when Maine outscored BU, 8-3.

Maine takes a 6-8 record into its next conference game with University of Maryland-Baltimore County on Saturday at home. The won-loss record isn't encouraging although Maine has won three straight. That Alasdair Fraser (17 points) and Xavier Pollard (13 points) stepped up when Edwards' shots wouldn't go down was evidence Maine's offense isn't one-dimensional.

"When you're a freshman you feel your way around and Justin did that last year," said Leichner. "This year, he realized with (Mike) Allison and Fraser, we can do more. When things are tense, Justin is the one standing up and saying, 'We're going to do this.' "

Someone has to.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway





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