PORTLAND – Her teammates kept butchering the pronunciation of her first name, so Michal (not like Kevin McHale, more like mik-HAL, but with slight roll of the uvula, if that’s even possible) now answers to something simpler.

Izzy.

Because, of course, Michal Assaf is from Israel.

Having turned 18 on Halloween, Assaf is the youngest player on the youngest Division I women’s basketball team (nine freshmen) in the country. She made her first start Wednesday night for the University of Maine in what turned out to be a 53-50 loss in Albany, N.Y., to Siena.

“She’s a competitor,” said Maine assistant coach Amy Vachon, formerly the head coach at McAuley High and an assistant at Greely. “She works really hard, she wants to get better and her hard work paid off.”

The Black Bears travel downstate for a Saturday matinee against Rhode Island at the Portland Expo. Yes, Rhode Island is the school where former Maine head coach — and favorite daughter as a player — Cindy Blodgett landed as an assistant after being fired by her alma mater in the spring of 2011.

Blodgett said she’ll be on a recruiting trip this weekend, however, and won’t be at the game.

Instead it will be two teams looking for a much-needed victory. Maine is 1-7 and looking to end a four-game losing streak. Rhode Island is 3-6 and has lost five of six.

“We’ve been on a downward trend lately and we’ve got to reverse that,” said Maine head coach Richard Barron. “We have played a very tough non-conference schedule, but we were seeing improvement through the Minnesota game (Nov. 18). We’ve taken some steps backward since then.”

Barron referred to losses against Virginia Commonwealth (74-58) and Florida Gulf Coast (79-49). Maine’s lone victory came three weeks ago in Minneapolis against Nevada-Las Vegas (74-67).

The Black Bears have used 10 different starters. Freshman guard Liz Wood and sophomore forward Courtney Anderson (Leavitt High) are the only players to have started all eight games.

Junior Ashleigh Roberts leads the team with an 11.2 point scoring average. Aside from senior Corinne Wellington, the rest of the active roster is all freshmen and sophomores.

“I’m disappointed in where we are,” Barron said. “I would have expected us to have a better start, but my optimism for the future is very high.”

Given some of last month’s developments in Israel leading to a late-November cease-fire with Hamas, Assaf can be excused for having distractions greater than those of the typical first-year college athlete. Her family lives in the northern part of Israel, Vachon said.

“So they weren’t right in the line of fire,” Vachon said, “but she has friends in the military.”

Hearing Assaf talk about life in Israel, about the “safe room” in her house, lends a unique perspective to a team that includes players from Serbia, Sweden, Finland, Germany and England.

“We have a lot of skilled players, but I don’t think we’ve really meshed yet,” Vachon said. “I think the coaches have more confidence in the player than the players have in themselves.”

Game time is 1 p.m.

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR Steve Abbott said he would be interested in the women’s basketball team playing a game in Portland every year. The Black Bears didn’t play here last winter. “We have a great group of fans in the Portland area,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and we really enjoy the opportunity to engage them directly.”

JUNIOR KARA CAPOSSELA has twice been named America East Diver of the Week. The Maine swimming and diving teams compete Saturday at Bates.

SOPHOMORE CONNOR LEEN, who missed the second Vermont game with an ankle injury, is expected to return to for Saturday night’s Hockey East game at Boston University. Leen shares the team lead in goals at 3 with Joey Diamond. Fellow forward Adam Shemansky, a senior, is likely to miss the BU game because of illness.

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH