ORONO — Shaun Lawton left the University of Maine behind.

His sophomore basketball season had devolved into a tumult of lost games, lost teammates and ultimately, a lost coach.

Lawton finished his final exams and headed home to Harlem in New York City, intent on forging a fresh start elsewhere.

Bob Walsh, a New York native, was announced as the new Black Bears coach May 7. He knew Lawton’s coaches at Putnam Science Academy (Putnam, Connecticut), who indicated Lawton may be willing to return to Orono.

Walsh and Lawton had a couple of phone conversations, then arranged to meet for a pivotal dinner on Manhattan’s Upper West side, with Lawton’s mother, Jeannette, also present.

So it is that, when the Black Bears open their season Saturday with an exhibition game at Southern Maine, Lawton will be back in the fold, a lanky 6-foot-5 junior guard who may set the tone for Walsh’s debut winter in Orono.

“It showed me persistence,” Lawton said of Walsh. “When I met him, he was real straight up with me and I could tell by his attitude he had a little more intensity and he was a coach I wanted to play for.”

Maine finished a dismal 6-23 last year. Dimitry Akanda-Coronel, who averaged 10.4 points per game, announced he was transferring shortly after the season. The leading scorer, Xavier Pollard (14.7), soon did the same. Lawton, who started 18 games and averaged 8.1 points and a team-high 4.2 assists, completed the exodus.

On April 14, Ted Woodward was fired after 10 seasons as head coach.

Walsh stepped into that ugly void three weeks later, intent on establishing a winning tradition but with few experienced players to help him start that process in Orono.

Akanda-Coronel had landed at Bryant University, although he has since left the program. Pollard ended up at Kent State. But Lawton was still within reach.

“I thought it was good to see him on his home turf,” Walsh said of the Manhattan dinner. “I said, ‘This guy’s a stud.’ From a leadership, personality approach, I was really, really impressed.”

Walsh told Lawton to take a couple of days to think about whether he wanted to remain a Black Bear. Jeannette Lawton didn’t even need that much time.

“After the dinner she was like, ‘I have a good feeling about him,'” Shaun Lawton recalled. “You know, moms always know best.”

Lawton, who led Maine with two steals per game last year, has the ability to be an elite defender. Walsh wants his team to first establish a high-pressure, defensive mindset. He sees Lawton as someone who can lead that effort.

“He’s a guy who has the ability, who has the makeup, who can have the approach to establish who we are every day,” Walsh said. “Shaun is the kind of personality who people will follow.”

Lawton, who said he is not naturally vocal, is happy to be that. After shooting just 39 percent from the field last year and leading the Black Bears with 89 turnovers, he spent the summer working on his jump shot and feels he’s become a smarter player.

He’s enjoying the practice sessions under Walsh, finding them more intense and demanding, with a premium put on conditioning.

“Everyone’s held accountable. We run up and down more. We want to get in transition, get easy baskets and feed off our defense. We pressure the ball a lot, get turnovers. That’s where it starts. With Coach Walsh, everything is defense,” Lawton said.

“Coming from New York City, I rarely lost. High school, AAU, all the teams I played on, we’d been good. So losing like that, it was something new and something I had to adjust to. Hopefully we’ll do better than 6-23 this year. Actually, I can guarantee that.”

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