March 29, 2020

Hens, Black Bears find refuge from darkness, storm, ice

BANGOR – This is a story of two teams, two coaches, four or five would-be gymnasiums, and one college basketball game that had to be played.

It’s an epic story of dark. And light (sometimes). Well, maybe not epic. But certainly interesting.

Oh. And one other thing: It’s the story of an ice storm. But then again, around here, right now, what isn’t?

The Maine and Delaware men’s basketball teams finally got together Saturday night – after numerous false starts, mind you – and played a contest that a few heard, almost nobody saw, and many will talk about for years.

The site will surprise you. The outcome may not. Here’s the tale.

The first scheduled opponent for UMaine was Towson University. Thursday at 7 p.m. No go. Nine o’clock? Nope. Two the next afternoon? Nosiree.

Let UMaine coach John Giannini bring us up to speed.

“Then Delaware came in, and we had them [scheduled Friday],” Giannini said. “And that was canceled. And one o’clock [Saturday], that was canceled. So you’re going through about five cancellations.”

Throuied as hard as he could to help his players cope. On Friday, after more than 24 hours without electricity, the second-year coach decided to roll with the storm and laugh a little.

The Black Bears headed to Alfond Arena in Orono, practiced under emergency power, and braved sub-50 degree indoor temperatures.

The refreshments, however, made it all worthwhile. There was no water for the Bears on that day.

“The Alfond was freezing, and he brought out hot chocolate for us,” junior guard Marcus Wills said with a laugh. “We practiced in sweats and winter hats, and went through [preparation for] Delaware.”

Overall, the Bears had spent more than their share of time in the dark, Wills said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the hallways [of a dorm], playing cards,” he said. “It’s been dim. We have candles.”

Ironically, the venue of choice for Saturday’s game, Alfond Arena, finally got back power on Saturday. But due to two days without electricity, the emergency power batteries were shot. And so was the chance to play the game.

“I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” UMaine assistant athletic director Dino Mattesich said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got some very creative people who come up with some good ideas.”

The ideas started – or continued – flowing through the day on Saturday. Gyms were mentioned, pondered, and shot down.

Colby College was tossed into the ring. Some bold souls suggested heading way, way down south – New Hampshire. Hampden Academy was particularly attractive, and plans were being made to play there.

“And at 11 o’clock, their power went out,” Mattesich said. “As we speak, I’m not sure it’s back on.”

With options running out, the UMaine brass opted for one of the smallest – but newest – gyms in the Bangor area.

Penobscot Job Corps on Union Street, where former UMaine captain Fritz Marseilles works as recreation director, was the choice.

Six rows of bleachers hugged one wall. The other sideline was nothing but well-decorated cinder blocks.

And due to the small gym, lack of parking, and security concerns that come with a game at an off-campus facility, the game was promptly closed down to the general public. Oh, yeah. The existing state of emergency was also cited.

About 75 people, mostly Job Corps students and UMaine employees waiting to help out after the game, sat in the bleachers.

No court-long press table awaited, and stat crews huddled on the stage on one end line. The two print reporters in attendance headed for vantage spots high – or as high as you could get – above courtside in the stands.

“I’ve been covering high school games for 15 years,” said Kevin Tresolini of the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal as he prepared a clipboard with his stat sheets and held a lap-top computer on the other knee. “I’m used to this.”

Veteran Bear-watchers may recall that a quarantined gym is nothing new for UMaine. Due to a measles outbreak in 1989, Maine played against Siena at Memorial Gym in Orono and on a neutral court in Utica, N.Y., with no fans allowed at either game.

For the players, the change in venue was OK, as long as the game was played.

“This place looked like the local rec center in my neighborhood,” Delaware forward Mike Pegues said after the game. “Wasn’t no thing to me.”

Delaware coach Mike Brey, who spent eight years in the lofty hoop atmosphere at Duke University as the top assistant to coach Mike Krzyzewski, just shook his head after the game.

Just four hours earlier, he had been talking to a bus driver about driving the Blue Hens back to Delaware when power to his hotel came back on.

Now, he could head back with a 94-82 win under difficult circumstances.

“The lights can go out now,” Brey said. “We got it done.”

Three minutes later, the lights dimmed yet again, and those lingering in the hallway looked up with a groan.

An hour later, the Blue Hens were in a bus, heading south.

And hours after that, much of Maine still sat in the dark.

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