FARMINGTON — The more Kevin Leary watched, the more frustrated he’d get.

After all, when a team is struggling — which the University of Maine at Farmington men’s basketball was — there is little a player can do while relegated to a sideline.

“Oh, it was frustrating,” Leary said. “I wasn’t playing last year because I had to take care of my grades. It hurt watching them, but I also think it made me better.”

And the Beavers are benefiting this season from his return.

Leary, a former Maranacook Community High School standout, has played a key role in UMF’s ascent up the North Atlantic Conference standings.

The fifth-year senior from Manchester is averaging 9.8 points for the Beavers (13-8), who are tied atop the NAC with Castleton State.

“He’s become a lot more confident in his abilities,” UMF coach Dick Meader said. “It comes from being a little bit older, a little bit more mature. He’s played really well for us. You hoped you would get this kind of production from him, but you didn’t know. He’s always been able to shoot the ball well.”

Leary, 23, came into the season as a bench player. It wasn’t until late in the first semester when he earned a starting job for UMF.

“He was making big shots to get us back into games,” Meader said.

The first came Dec. 10 in a 77-74 victory over Colby-Sawyer. The Beavers trailed by 17 points late in the second half but rallied to win the game in overtime. Leary hit several key 3-pointers down the stretch to help spark the comeback and finished with 13 points.

He’s shooting 44.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, which is tops in the conference.

“I have nothing to lose in my last year,” Leary said. “I didn’t have a good first semester, and I think we were just trying to find our identity. But I am much more confident now. I shoot the ball when I’m open. That game (against Colby-Sawyer) gave me some confidence going into the second half of the season.”

And Leary hasn’t slowed.

He sparked another late-game comeback — a 67-64 win over Husson on Jan. 9 — with another big 3-pointer with under 2 minutes left to pull UMF ahead.

“I’m just trying to be consistent” Leary said.

Added Meader: “We didn’t expect this much from him, but he’s been real important for us.”

UMF finished 10-15 last season with Leary ineligible. The Beavers are in the hunt for a NAC title this winter. UMF and Castleton are 12-2 in conference play, one game ahead of Colby-Sawyer (11-3).

“We have all the pieces,” Leary said. “We have a lot of good shooters on this team.”

Meader said that although his team is young, it’s played just about every opponent tough this season.

“We’ve done a nice job but we have a long ways to go,” he said. “We’ve been very competitive.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5640
[email protected]

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