Three Thoughts: Quinnipiac 81, Maine 64

In each team’s final non-conference matchup of 2014, Quinnipiac defeated Maine 81-64. The final margin may be indicative of the quality gap between these two squads, but the Black Bears showed toughness as they nearly erased a 17-point first half deficit. Here are three thoughts from Quinnipiac’s victory.

Ousmane Drame powered Quinnipiac to their first MAAC victory (Photo Credit - Matt Eisenberg)

Ousmane Drame took care of business yet again for the Bobcats. The senior forward posted 20 points and 11 rebounds for his 32nd career double-double (Photo Credit – Matt Eisenberg)

Maine is making progress despite their record. First year head coach Bob Walsh has had his share of struggles with a young Maine team. Walsh is in his first year in Division I after nine seasons as the head coach at Division III Rhode Island College where he guided the Anchormen to a 204-63 record. With America East play ahead in 2015, the 1-11 Black Bears may have finally found a groove they can build upon in the new year.

Trailing 26-9 midway through the first half Monday evening, it appeared Quinnipiac would run away with an easy victory and a nice tune up before a critical matchup with Saint Peter’s. However, Walsh’s squad didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to roll over and die. The Black Bears closed the half on a 21-7 run and cut the Bobcats’ once mighty advantage to a mere three points at the break.

Five different Black Bears scored during the rally, which included four straight 3-pointers. Despite the stunning first half comeback, Quinnipiac started the second half on a 20-6 run, quickly burying the Black Bears once again. Till Gloger led Maine with 19 points while Shaun Lawton added 11 points and five assists. Kevin Little knocked down three shots from beyond the arc to finish with nine points.

Maine’s impressive rally was all the more impressive given the absence of leading scorer, Zarko Valjarevic. The senior forward leads the Black Bears with 11.4 ppg, but has missed the last two contests due to illness.

“He’s sick,” Walsh said of Valjarevic. “We hope to have him for America East play, but he just came back to practice yesterday. He practiced only for about 20 minutes and then was pulled out, so he hasn’t really practiced much.”

With conference play looming, the Black Bears will be tested right from the gate. They start America East play with a road contest at Albany followed by a home bout against Vermont. Both opponents are expected to compete for the America East crown this season.

“We’re excited about it,” Walsh added on the start of conference play. “It’s a really good league, and I have a ton of respect for the coaches in the league. We get to see the iron right away. Albany and Vermont have been at the top of the league along with Stony Brook. I think our guys are excited because it’s familiar and we’ll be ready to go.”

Quinnipiac finally seems to be able to get consistent scoring. Nine different Bobcats scored against Maine Monday evening, with all five starters reaching double figures. Ousmane Drame led the way with 20 points and added 11 rebounds for his 32nd career double-double. Zaid Hearst, who has finished in double digits every game this season, followed with 15.

Beyond those top two, the Bobcats’ scoring has largely been by committee this season. However, they have recently been able to rely on steady contributions both from the other starters and reserves off the bench.

Fellow starters Evan Conti, Kasim Chandler, and Justin Harris have all scored in double figures two of the last three games. That consistency, combined with the recent backcourt help from Virginia natives James Ford Jr. and Ayron Hutton have given the Bobcats added options which also serve to alleviate pressure from Hearst and Drame.

“I’m happy that a lot of guys had an opportunity to get out there and make positive plays for us on both ends of the court,” head coach Tom Moore said. “I’m trusting our bench more and they’re getting more and more confidence in leaps and bounds.”

Playoffs in January. Technically we’re still a long way from March, but Quinnipiac’s upcoming showdown with Saint Peter’s may as well be considered a playoff game. With both MAAC contenders entering the contest 0-2 in early conference play, one squad will be left in a deep hole to dig themselves out of.

The pressure is compounded for Quinnipiac, who will be faced with a daunting road trip following their contest with the Peacocks. The Bobcats travel to Iona and Monmouth in early January. With both the Gaels and Hawks looking like top teams in the MAAC early on, the Bobcats could be faced with an uphill battle to avoid being completely buried in the conference should they drop Friday’s game against Saint Peter’s.

In order to drive home the importance of Friday’s showdown, Moore is planning to treat it like a playoff game.

“We’re going to make it into something big,” Moore said of Friday’s game. “John [Dunne] does a terrific job. They are very very tough, so our own toughness will be tested on Friday. We’re going to make it a big deal because it’s been really hard to look at ourselves in last place. We’ll be excited but I know Saint Peter’s will pack their toughness, so it should be a really good game.”

Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.