FARMINGTON — Josh Tanguay hasn’t played basketball this late in his previous three years at the University of Maine at Farmington, but then, neither had anyone who came before him.
So one can understand if the senior center from Gorham is eager to soak in every moment of the Beavers’ unprecedented journey to the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament.
“The past few years we’ve ended on a couple of devastating losses,” Tanguay said. “We’re not done yet, but it’s nice to accomplish our goal this year and be where we want to be.”
Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, MA., is where Tanguay and his teammates want to be Thursday night (7 p.m.). The winner will travel to Williams College for a second-round game against the nationally-ranked Ephs. It is UMF’s first appearance in the tournament after they won their first North Atlantic Conference title last weekend at Dearborn Gymnasium
The Beavers (14-11) appreciate the fact that they are in unchartered territory. Head coach Dick Meader, in his 17th year at UMF, appreciates it more than anyone else.
“Getting off to a bad start, then being able to turn it around and get to a .500 season… it’s been like climbing a mountain, trying not to slip back,” Meader said. “Being able to host (the NAC) tournament here with the great atmosphere, and then being able to win in that atmopshere, not just having it. Now, we’re trying to go another step further.”
“I’m glad we could do it for coach,” junior forward Eric Taylor said. “He’s been with us a long time and played here himself and never won a championship, and it’s good to get it for him as well as us.”
Through the first third of the season, it looked like the Beavers wouldn’t get anything but a lot of frustration this season. Starting the season with a tough non-conference schedule, they lost their first eight games.
“We were kind of discouraged,” Taylor said, “but we always kept looking ahead. The conference hadn’t started yet, and that was a new season. It was good to play against the skill level we played against. It really prepared us for the conference and made a big difference.”
UMF went 12-2 in the NAC, and the Beavers believe that schedule and the non-conference difficulties that preceded it have prepared them for the tournament.
“I think we’re ready for the level of talent that we’re going to see,” Tanguay said. “We played in a big tournament down at Amherst at the beginning of the year. We always play Colby and Bowdoin. We know the level of talent that we’re going to see and I think we know that we can match their intensity, so I think it’s just a matter of whether we can show up and do what we usually do.”
Bridgewater State (19-7) is making its second straight appearance in the tournament and fifth overall. The Bears beat St. Joseph’s College of Standish and upset Middlebury College en route to the Sweet 16 last year and won the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC) tournament to ensure a return to the national tournament this year.
They are led by MASCAC Player of the Year Nicholas Motta, a 6-foot-3 junior forward who averages 18.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game, and fellow all-MASCAC selections Judah Jackson (6-1 jr. guard, 14.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Matt McLauglin (5-10 sr. guard, MASCAC tournament MVP).
“They’re not big, but they’re very good off the dribble,” Meader said. “Traditionally, Maine kids are better shooters than players off the dribble, and that is what is different with those types of teams, especially the Massachusetts teams that play off the dribble so much better.”
“We just have to do what we always do, just protect the painted area,” he added. “Make them shoot over us, challenge shots over us and rebound the basketball.”
True to form, UMF has a number of dangerous shooters. Senior guard Eric Lelansky, from Deering High School, averages 13.1 ppg and shoots 41 percent from 3-point territory. Taylor, a 6-foot-5 forward out of Messalonskee, has a soft touch from the inside and outside and leads the Beavers in scoring (16.2) and is second in rebounding (8.2). Tanguay, 6-foot-4, averages 12.4 ppg and a team-leading 9.2 rebounds per game and was the NAC tournament MVP. Andrew Dean, a 5-foot-10 junior guard also from Gorham, was second to Lelansky on the team in 3-pointers with 47.
“Hopefully, we can get to the rim with our two inside players, and if there’s space on the perimeter, make shots,” Meader said. “They’ll put pressure on, full-court, and we have to make sure we don’t turn it over.”
It will be on Lelansky and sophomore guard D.J. Gerrish of Mountain Valley to make sure the Beavers take care of the ball.
“We’ve played some really athletic teams before like Thomas College and Husson,” Gerrish said, “so it’s not something we haven’t seen. But I think it is going to be different. It’s probably going to be a different style of play, probably getting up-and-down the floor a lot faster. I’m looking forward to it.”
The University of Maine at Farmington has reserved 100 tickets for Thursday’s game. UMF fans are asked to identify themselves when purchasing tickets at the main entrance of the Tinsley Center on the Bridgewater State campus. The allotment of UMF tickets not sold, will be available to the general public 10 minutes before tip-off. Ticket prices are $6 for reserved and general admission and $3 for senior citizens, students and children. Admission is free for children under the age of 2.
For those who can not be in attendance, Bridgewater State is offering live stats (http://livestats.prestosports.com/bscbears/) and video (http://www.pennatlantic.com/main.php?module=event-detail&eventId=17771).