BY Pete Warner
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
Isaiah Bess will be trying to make Maine proud on Wednesday afternoon.
The talented guard from LaGrange is one of two players from the state still playing college basketball this season.
Bess and his Stonehill College teammates are in Frisco, Texas, where the fifth-seeded Skyhawks (24-8) will take on fourth-seeded West Liberty University, the nation's No. 3-ranked team at 30-3, in the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship Elite Eight.
Wednesday's tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Dr. Pepper Arena.
"We're only one of eight teams left in the country for our division, so it's a pretty exciting opportunity," Bess said Tuesday.
"I'm a competitive person and kind of knowing that I'm the first guy from my Class of 2014 to be able to go this far, whether it's [Division I, Division II or Division III], I'm proud and I want to continue this as long as I can," he said.
Josie Lee of Augusta is gearing up for Tufts' April 4 appearance in the Division III women's national title game against Thomas More.
Bess has been a key contributor for coach Chris Kraus' Stonehill ballclub. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is averaging 7.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game.
"With some injuries he's been bumped into the starting lineup, and he's just really taken off since that point, playing extremely aggressive and very confident," said Kraus, who was a guard on Stonehill's last Elite Eight team in 2005. "It's been a lot of fun watching his development."
Bess, who has been playing his best basketball down the stretch, admits having to work through some issues during the first semester.
"I'm still trying to learn all the ins and outs of college and be able to balance time for school work, social life and basketball," Bess said. "I was struggling a little bit with most of that at the beginning of the season, then I had some personal issues that were going on, so I was kind of up and down."
He credited his parents, David and Mary, along with his family and his former coaches, for helping him get back on track.
"I'm really happy where I am right now," said Bess.
Bess became a starter after a foot injury to senior guard Dan Brix. He has started the last five games, averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 57 percent overall and 42 percent from the 3-point arc during that span.
"I think building off all the time I've been here, learning from the other players before me, has helped me quite a lot in my transition to be a starter," Bess said.
He has continued to work on all aspects of his game. As a freshman, he averaged 3.4 points and 1.1 rebounds in 24 games, averaging 13.6 minutes.
He said having to earn playing time after his dominating play at Penquis and his strong contributions at Hampden was not as difficult as one might imagine.
"I think the transition from my junior year of high school to Hampden helped me with that, because I went to a team where everybody was a lot more talented," Bess said. "I didn't have to do as much."
With the Skyhawks, Bess plays a shooting guard/small forward spot that helps him take advantage of his shooting and his ability to slash to the basket off the dribble.
"We tell him to make sure you shoot it when you're open or catch it aggressively and have the ability to go by your defender, take advantage of that," said Kraus, who continues to stress defense to Bess.
It's a dynamic that was preached by Bess' former coaches, including Jason Mills and Tony Hamlin at Penquis and AAU coach Mike Woodbury.
"When he plays aggressively defensively and he's giving everything he has on the defensive side of things, he's a really talented defender," Kraus said.
Bess continues to strive for improvement. As his role grows, so does his confidence, which should help him take the next step in his career.
"Personally, I always knew I could do this. It would just be a matter of time when the moment kind of presented itself and hopefully I'd be ready to step up to that," Bess said.
"The big thing is better understanding his role and his strengths as a player," Kraus said.
"He's got a lot more room for growth, and we're excited to help him get to that point to reach his full potential," he added.
Bess is more concerned with team goals, rather than his own play.
"We've come here to the Elite Eight, and hopefully I can do as much as I can to help our team win," Bess said.
He will have family members in the crowd when Stonehill plays on Wednesday. His parents are staying with one of his aunts, who lives nearby.
"I'm glad they're going to be down here to support me. That's going to make it a lot easier," Bess said.
"I hope I can represent Maine as long as I can," he said.