BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — The University of Maine at Farmington likes the NCAA tournament so much, it has decided to stay around for a while.
Eric Taylor tallied 22 points and 15 rebounds and D.J. Gerrish played suffocating defense in the second half as the Beavers pulled out a 64-63 victory over Bridgewater State at the Tinsley Center in the first round of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament Thursday night.
With their first win in their first NCAA tournament game ever, the Beavers (15-11) advance to face Williams College of Williamstown, MA in the second round on Saturday. The Ephs are 26-1 and ranked second in the nation.
It is a matchup that would have seemed impossible less than two months ago.
“After the last four or five games we’ve talked to each other and said ‘Remember when we were 0-8?'” said Taylor, a junior forward from Oakland. “It seems as though we ask each other that every game and just remember the feeling we had when we were 0-8.”
“They’ve earned the right to play in the NCAA,” said UMF coach Dick Meader, who picked up his first NCAA win in 17 years at Farmington. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve been resilient. I knew we were better than 0-8.”
Andrew Dean added 16 points and Eric Lelansky 12 for UMF. Nicholas Motta led Bridgewater with 20 points, while Corey Connor and Judah Jackson added 10 apiece.
The Beavers handed the Bears (19-8), who made it to the Sweet 16 of last year’s tournament, just their second home loss this season. But they needed to come from behind and hold on at the end to do it.
Bridgewater had the final shot and chance to win the game after Dean missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11.6 seconds left. Connor shook loose behind a screen to try a 3-pointer from the right corner, but it was long. Jackson rebounded the ball about 12 feet from the basket along the baseline and tried to win it with Taylor closing in on him, but that shot fell short as the buzzer sounded.
“I’d do that (play again). They really bit on everybody else. Connor had a great look,” Bridgewater coach Joe Farroba said. “It’s just very disheartening. Obviously, I think we’ve had a great year. To have this game in our gym and not take care of it was the big disappointment.”
“But I’m not surprised because I knew the way they were going to play,” he added. “I’ve played against (Meader) before. They’re very patient on offense. They made us play defense. They made us play their game.”
UMF shot 46 percent from the floor and 43 percent (6-for-14) on 3-pointers, compared to 40 percent from the floor by Bridgewater. Led by Taylor and senior center Josh Tanguay (six points, nine rebounds), UMF held a 44-27 advantage on the boards.
Taylor struggled with some easy shots in the second half, but his tip-in of a Lelansky miss tied the game at 61-61 with 3:30 remaining. Taylor then gave the Beavers the lead for good with a power move on the baseline that he converted into a three-point play to make it 64-61 with 2:44 remaining.
“It’s frustrating to miss easy baskets,” Taylor said. “But if you stop shooting there, you really fail in the situation. You’ve just got to stick with it and they’ll fall after awhile.”
While Taylor was working to overcome his frustrations, Gerrish was increasing Motta’s frustration level after Meader put him on the Bears’ leading scorer to start the second half. In the first half, Motta went through a stretch in which he scored 16 straight points for the Bears to single-handedly pull them out of a 25-14 deficit midway through the half and into a 40-37 lead at the intermission.
“I went over to coach and said, ‘Let me play him for a little while,'” said Gerrish, who finished with four points, four rebounds, six assists and three steals. “I just did what I try to do with every person I guard. If I have a scorer, it’s all about getting in the (passing) lanes and if they catch it, get in front of him. He tried to post me up a little bit, but he couldn’t get anything with that, which was nice. It made it a little easier for me.”
With help from Taylor and Lelansky, Gerrish held Motta to four points in the second half.
“I didn’t really get the ball in a lot of spots,” Motta said. “Whenever I had the ball in the post, they would double. It was pretty much the same all game. (In the first half), I was just getting good looks at the basket.”
“D.J. does a great job defending people, not giving them good looks,” Meader said. “He can do it from positions one-to-four. It doesn’t matter what size (he’s guarding). He just is there between them and the basket each and every time, and don’t expose the ball to him.”
Taylor owned the paint for much of the first half, leading a 7-0 Beaver run that put them up 25-14 with 9:07 left. But 21 turnovers plagued them throughout and helped spark Motta’s dominating run. The 6-foot-3 junior forward made a 3-pointer, converted a steal into a layup, then three more treys before ending his hot streak with a baseline fadeway that made it 33-31.
The Bears led by as much as seven in the first half, but a Dan Kane hoop and a Gerrish steal that Lelansky converted into a bucket to beat the buzzer began a 11-2 UMF run that extended into the second half and briefly put the Beavers up 42-40.
Bridgewater led by as much as six in the second half and got into the bonus well before UMF. But the scoreboard showed the Beavers hanging in throughout, then, at the buzzer, sent 1,000 Bridgewater fans home stunned.
Almost as stunned as the Beavers themselves.
“I looked at the scoreboard after the game and just said ‘I don’t even know what we’re doing,'” Gerrish said. “I can’t comprehend it. We get to go on to the next round of the big tournament, the national tournament. That’s something that never happens at Farmington.”