WATERVILLE — Twenty minutes.

That’s how close the Thomas College men’s basketball team was to winning the North Atlantic Conference championship last season. That’s how close the Terriers were to a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.

Tied 40-40 at halftime during the NAC title game last Feb. 23, Husson University pulled away for an 82-67 victory.

The returning Terriers not only remember that game, they remember it vividly.

The loss was especially painful for some players, including guard Zach Mackinnon, because it marked the second time in their careers Husson upended Thomas in the NAC title game. The other came in the 2016-17 season.

Thomas College guard Demetris Webster plays defense during a game against the University of Maine at Machias on Friday in Waterville. Contributed photo/Thomas College athletics

“My second time, we did it my freshman year,” said Mackinnon. “Same thing, we were tied at halftime. Lost it twice in the second half. So it doesn’t sit well with me, I know it doesn’t sit well with the other guys. We’re pretty confident this year.”

The Terriers (2-0) return most of their roster, and have a new head coach in former assistant Deshon Gaither, who takes over the program from Joe Scheuers.

Gaither is no stranger to basketball in Maine. The South Bend, Indiana, native was an assistant under Ted Woodward at the University of Maine during the 2013-2014 season, and coached the Lee Academy post graduate program from 2010-2013.

“I’ve been preaching to them about being mentally tough,” Gaither said after Friday’s opening win over the University of Maine at Machias. “We went (to the locker room at halftime) and I was like ‘you’re letting the little things (get to you), you’re technically beating yourselves. I know you’re tired, but you can’t (be mentally) tired. Do what you do in practice, and I’m telling you, it’s going to work itself out.’”

The Terriers prefer to play up-tempo in order to wear opponents down.

“We are so well conditioned,” Mackinnon said. “We are up in line, we’re getting steals. We’re a fast-paced team. We’re trying to out-run the opponent as fast as we can to get them tired, because it works to our benefit.”

Thomas returns its top four scorers, led by Mackinnon — a Kennebunk native and the team’s lone senior —who averaged 12.4 points per game last season. Sophomore forwards Loveguerson Fleurine and Tyler Nixon, along with classmate guards Demetris Webster and Justin Butler, will help lead the team as well.

Fleurine is Thomas’ strongest player in the post, he averaged 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season. Fleurine got off to a strong start and is averaging a double-double — 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds — through two games.

The 5-foot-7 Webster, who is averaging 16.5 points, brings plenty of energy to the team.

“Being my size, I have to play with a chip on my shoulder,” Webster said. “So I play every game that I play like it’s my last. I want to give my game 100 (percent). I want to go 100 percent no matter if it’s falling on the ground, or picking my teammates up. For this basketball game, I would die for (it). I love this game. I feel like it’s only right for me as a leader on this team to give everything I’ve got.”

Thomas will still have strong depth off the bench, including sophomore Jordan Goodson, who averaged 10.3 points per game last season.

The road to the NAC title will not be easy, as Husson again should be in the mix. The teams play twice in February.  Thomas will also face a tough conference test in the University of Maine at Farmington. The Beavers are the defending NAC regular-season champs, but they fell to Thomas in the conference semifinals.

Now, the Terriers hope to take that next step into the NCAA tournament.

“We constantly think about the 20 minutes we lost,” Webster said. “We lost in 20 minutes of that (second) half. That’s the main point, to prove people wrong. We’re going to get back there, but it’s just one game at a time. We’ll definitely get it this year.”

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