College basketball: Beavers making most of NCAA trip

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UMF coach Dick Meader— your team just won its first NCAA Division III tournament game in school history. What are you going to do now?

“Hopefully stop into the Hall of Fame,” Meader said following Thursday night’s 64-63 first-round upset of Bridgewater State College.

It’s visit to Massachusetts extended by a couple of days, the University of Maine at Farmington boys’ basketball team went from making history Thursday night to experiencing it Friday with a visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

What the Beavers did in Bridgewater isn’t going to be commemorated at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, but it will long be remembered by the 75 or so UMF fans who traveled to the small liberal arts college about 30 minutes south of Boston to witness the Beavers’ first ever NCAA  tournament appearance.

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The Beavers (15-11), winners of 11 of their last 12 and 15 of their last 18, spent Thursday night near Bridgewater, then boarded the bus for the long trip to Williamstown in the northwest corner of the Bay State, near the Vermont and New York state borders.

Awaiting them there is Williams College (26-1), the No. 2 ranked team in the nation in the latest D3hoops.com poll and winners of 17 straight. The NESCAC champions, who beat Bates College twice this season by 30 and 23 points, earned a first-round bye and have not played since defeating Middlebury in the conference championship on Feb. 28.

UMF has won six straight and is playing perhaps its best basketball of the season, especially defensively. The Beavers held Bridgewater to just five points in the final 10 minutes and scoreless in the final 2:20 Thursday night.

The Beavers are ranked 63rd in the nation in scoring defense (65.1 ppg). One thing that helps the defense be so stingy is that, despite having just three regulars as tall as 6-foot-4 or 6-5, they usually control the boards. That was the cast against Bridgewater, where they held a 44-27 overall advantage and an 18-14 edge on the offensive glass.

“Most of our season stats would prove that we’ve outrebounded our opponents,” Meader said. “That’s one of our strengths, perhaps more due to determination than technique.”

 “We work really hard every practice on rebounds and we’ve been doing really well all year with it,” said junior forward Eric Taylor, who tallied a double-double with 22 points and 15 rebounds. “We were in (Bridgewater’s gym) earlier and we noticed the rims were pretty loose and we knew there weren’t going to be a lot of long rebounds, so we talked before the game about getting into our man, boxing out hard and the rebounds would be pretty close to the basket. We were prepared pretty well.”

UMF will have to be even more diligent preparing for Williams, which is ranked seventh in the nation in scoring (85.1 ppg), and first in scoring margin (20.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (52.5 percent).

The Ephs have the size to compete with UMF on the boards. Former Cape Elizabeth star Joe Geoghegan is a 6-foot-8, 225-pound sophomroe center who leads the team in rebounding (8.4 rpg). But their top scorers are guards Blake Schultz (18.4 ppg, 51.3 percent on 3-pointers) and James Wang (16.9 ppg, 50. 9 percent 3-pointers). Troy Whittington, a 6-foot-5 center, provides a spark off the bench and is their third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder (10.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

Led by Andrew Dean (16 points) and Eric Lelansky (12 points), the Beavers shot the ball well from downtown Thursday (6-for-14), but they don’t want to get into a 3-point shooting contest with the Ephs, who led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (45 percent).

More likely, UMF will try to do what it did against Bridgewater — control the tempo, remain patient on offense and look to pound the ball inside to Taylor and Josh Tanguay.

“They are patient and very unselfish. They certainly don’t care who scores or anything like that,” Meader said. “Each guy is a little bit different and they protect each other well in different parts of the game and do what they do well.”

Basking in the glow of his first career NCAA victory in his 17th year at UMF, Meader said he knew the Beavers were embarking on their toughest challenge of the season in Williams, but his confidence in his team has never been higher.

“They’re so resilent. Before the game, (assistant coach) Jim Kerschner will always look at our team and their team warming up and say ‘Which team would you rather coach?’ an emotional Meader said. “And it’s always our guys.”

“These guys are wonderful human beings. They do a great job in the classroom and they try to do what you ask them to do in practice,” he added. “It’s just great to have players like that. I hope someday they will realize what a season they’ve had.”

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