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Feb. 21—BIDDEFORD — Before the game, University of Southern Maine men's basketball coach Karl Henrikson addressed his players, in what was the visitors' "locker room" — a section of the empty bleachers, with Henrikson standing next to a portable white board.
He spoke words that did not need saying, but only emphasized the moment:
"We're ready for this."
USM and the University of New England opened their abbreviated seasons Saturday afternoon at the Harold Alfond Forum, seasons that would typically begin by mid-November.
USM won, 85-83, but in these pandemic days of anxiety, doubt and canceled games, the score was never more secondary.
"No matter the outcome, I feel like we won," Nor'easters Coach Ed Silva said.
The winter sports season, including hockey and indoor track, is finally getting underway for some Maine colleges. For many of these NCAA Division III schools, it's their first athletic competitions of any sort since the coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports last March.
Silva told his players after the game that it felt like being home again, playing a real game on the UNE court.
"It was a great feeling," UNE senior Avery DeBrito said. "Basketball has been a big part of my life forever. It's been over a year (since we last played)."
DeBrito's jumper with seven second left tied the game. But USM freshman Trevor Ward scored a layup with 1.3 seconds left for the win.
"It was fun to beat up on someone else, instead of ourselves in practice," Ward said.
And practice has been going on ... and on, with the possibility that teams would not play any games.
"It's been a struggle," said USM senior point guard and captain Keenan Hendricks of Owls Head. "Mentally, it's been a battle. You've got to be able to remain optimistic at all times. I'm trying to keep these guys up. We've been practicing since the first of October.
"We've had like 60 practices before a game."
The Huskies could only keep working.
"Days spent in the gym or weight room without the motivation of an upcoming opponent presented challenges to the team and each individual," Henrikson said. "We emphasized fundamentals and conditioning early. They knew what we were preparing for from Day One.
"The last few months has really brought our group together. The positive and productive reaction to the daily grind has been a testament to their character and commitment to each other."
Silva said his team pushed through the disappointments, beginning with no competition during the first semester.
"Then the break between fall and spring semesters was tough because it lasted eight weeks," Silva said. "We, again, focused on connection, growth, and staying ready via Zoom.
"Soon after the start of the spring (semester), the players learned that our league would not play and that really, really hurt ... Again, we refocused and looked at what we had, not what we did not."
What the Nor'easters eventually had was the go-ahead for contact practice, and then a schedule of up to six games.
"We're fortunate to play games. It's better than nothing," said senior guard Jordan Bagshaw of Cumberland. "Win or lose, I'm glad we're playing ... Losing by two at the buzzer (was difficult), but we'll come back (Sunday)."
The two teams play again at 1 p.m. Sunday in Gorham. USM will play at least three more games — against UMaine-Farmington next week, and a home-and-home series with Colby in March. UNE plays two games against UMaine-Augusta next weekend and is hoping for two more games after that.
The women's basketball teams have similar schedules.
St. Joseph's College does not have a winter sports schedule yet, but is "finalizing some things," Athletic Director Will Sanborn said.
Bowdoin and Bates are not playing this winter. Husson, Thomas, Maine Maritime, UMaine-Presque Isle and UMaine-Fort Kent are all playing short schedules.
Both USM and UNE are also playing hockey. The men's and women's teams played Saturday in Gorham. USM has been hosting indoor track and field meets.
But with the pandemic, nothing is certain.
"We were not 100 percent cleared (for Saturday) until our COVID tests on Friday — the required third test of the week," Silva said. The tests were scheduled for 6:30 Friday morning.
"Some players showed up at 6:10, excited at the possibility of playing."
Results of some of those tests were not known until Saturday.
"We didn't know until today that this game was going to be played," USM's Henricks said. "And that's how it's going to be the rest of the year."
Testing is just part of it. Anyone entering the Alfond Forum is screened for symptoms, with masks required of everyone, including players during the game. There are no fans, and, in place of a team bench, players sit in chairs socially distanced from each other. UNE, like all schools, has a lot of rules to follow.
"Our protocols have been informed by many sources," said UNE Athletic Director Heather Davis, "including the NCAA, the CDC, state and local governments, as well as many different departments across our campus."
Are the games worth it?
"Competition is such an integral piece to the student-athlete experience, and it has been deeply missed by everyone involved," said Davis, a former soccer coach at UNE and player at Plymouth State. "We are thrilled to be able to provide what we can."
Saturday's game provided some thrills. USM trailed by as much as 12 and was down 49-41 at halftime. The Huskies rallied, and Hendricks' 3-pointer gave USM a 67-65 lead. The game seesawed from there, until Ward's hustle down the court for the winning layup.
The win was nice, but Saturday meant more.
"It's hard to describe," Hendricks said. "I'm just happy. Just very grateful, just to play a game, just to play."