FARMINGTON – Eight was enough for the University of Maine at Farmington men’s basketball team.
As in eight consecutive defeats to tip off the season. Not many programs rally from that emotional baggage and salvage a .500 bottom line, never mind qualify for the NCAA tournament.
But the ugliness off that snowman on the Beavers’ first-semester scorecard was in the eye of the beholder. To a man, UMF perceived it as evidence that a young, promising squad was more than ready to pick on somebody its own size.
“Our non-conference schedule was as tough as anybody’s,” UMF coach Dick Meader said, noting that the November and December slate ranked No. 62 in ruggedness out of more than 400 Division III teams. “Not only were they good teams, but they were big.”
Not only was UMF good over the final two-thirds of its schedule, but the Beavers earned the biggest date in the 64-year history of their program.
Farmington won its first North Atlantic Conference championship Saturday, defeating Castleton, 65-51, for the crown and an automatic bid in the NCAA Division III tournament.
The journey begins Thursday night with a first-round visit to Bridgewater (Mass.) State. With a win there, UMF (14-11) would travel to No. 2 Williams College on Saturday.
It’s the first-ever berth for the Beavers in a national tournament, according to Meader. Fourteen victories match the most in a single season by the program since 1999-2000, when Meader guided the Beavers to only the third 20-win campaign in school history.
“Back in the 1970s, to get out of New England, you had to beat Franklin Pierce, Southern New Hampshire, Quinnipiac. They’re all in Division I or II now,” Meader said. “At that time, Husson had scholarships and Saint Joseph’s was always in the conference, also. You might get one of them, but it was very difficult to get both. I don’t want to say it’s easier now, but at least we’re all on equal footing.”
Takeaways and transition baskets have transported UMF into those uncharted waters.
Since the season-opening streak ended, only three teams have hit or surpassed the 70-point threshold against the Beavers. UMF has won 10 of its last 11 games, including the last four by an average of 20 points.
“If you’re a really good offensive team, you only have to be good enough defensively,” Meader said. “If you’re not a great offensive team, you have to be very good defensively, and these guys have taken that to heart.”
UMF isn’t big, but balanced. Eric Taylor, a 6-foot-5 senior forward, leads the Beavers with 16.1 points per game. Senior center Josh Tanguay, an inch shorter than his cohort in the paint, coupled 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest.
“Those guys need to get to the rim for us to be successful,” Meader said. “In our non-conference schedule, we played teams that were just big. Endicott, who beat us in double-overtime, went 6-7 and 6-8. It’s not that (Taylor and Tanguay) didn’t play well. We just couldn’t match that size.”
Senior Eric Lelansky (13.1 ppg) has set the pace on and off the court for the Beavers.
D.J. Gerrish of Rumford stepped into the starting backcourt at midseason and has provided a steadying presence at both ends of the floor.
And Andrew Dean’s outside shooting built the bookends to UMF’s tournament run.
“He had some nice games, but all of a sudden he went 9-of-12 on 3s (for 31 points) against Maine Maritime to get us our first win,” Meader said of Dean. “And in the championship game Saturday, he hit his first three 3s to set us off.”
There’s a limited but memorable hoop history between UMF and Bridgewater State. Their last meeting was in 1997, when the Bears (19-7) prevailed in overtime in the title game of a holiday tournament at Babson.
“It’s a similar situation. They’re in a conference (Massachusetts State College Athletic) with a lot of the old state teachers’ colleges,” Meader said. “You just go and compete and see what you can do.”
Those autumn collisions with Bowdoin, Colby, St. Joe’s and the University of New England left the Beavers mightily prepared for the trip to Bridgewater, and perhaps beyond.
“We saw some games early that gave us the confidence to get there,” said Meader. “And boy, we’re playing well.”