BANGOR – It was a one-point basketball game for much of the first 10 minutes. A once-dormant rivalry between two of Maine’s most visible women’s programs was sparking. Then it wasn’t.
The University of Maine women beat the University of Southern Maine 72-42 on Monday night. It was an exhibition game in every sense of the word. Maine showed off the athleticism and talent of its scholarship players, and USM showed how an underdog can lose by 30 points and still walk off the court with pride and dignity.
When Erin McNamara hit a 3-point shot midway through the first half, many in the announced crowd of 890 looked up and tried to reconcile the numbers on the scoreboard: Maine led only 14-13. How could this be?
Liz Wood, UMaine’s 5-foot-10 sophomore forward from Catlett, Va., took over. She scored on a jumper, scored on a layup, put in another jump shot, hit a 3-pointer, added a layup, and suddenly had 11 of her game-high 21 points. UMaine had scored 13 straight points, and now there wasn’t so much scoreboard watching.
UMaine led by 10 at halftime. The lead didn’t explode until the last 10 minutes. Strangely, very few in the crowd left. Their continued presence was a compliment to the USM players. It seemed they never looked up at the scoreboard.
What, we’re down by 20? What, UMaine’s lead is 26?
“I told them to enjoy themselves,” said Gary Fifield, the USM coach who rolls out teams that win 20 games season after season. Those wins come on a level playing field. Division III teams can’t award athletic scholarships.
UMaine and USM women last played each other in 1986. UMaine won 17 of their 18 meetings before someone in Orono decided the date could be put to better use.
UMaine and USM. The big state university campus in the very rural part of the state and the smaller state university with two campuses in what passes for urban Maine.
Fifield and Barron have a little history. Barron once traveled all the way from his home in Tennessee to see how Fifield coached basketball and how he won. Their friendship made Monday night’s game happen. Not that the friendship was tested by a 30-point defeat.
“This is kind of special,” said Fifield. “We’re trying to create some excitement and buzz for Maine women’s basketball. “Anytime (UMaine) has a winning program it benefits all of us. If a young girl somewhere picks up a basketball and wants to be the next Cindy Blodgett or the next Liz Wood, that’s good for basketball everywhere in the state.”
He’s right, of course. He wanted UMaine to expose his team’s weaknesses. He wanted his players to measure themselves. They did.
“You always hate to lose,” said McNamara, one of only two starters back from last year’s top-ranked Division III team and one of only two seniors. “They were bigger and stronger. We stayed with them.”
Not at the end of the first half or at the end of the game. McNamara scored 12 points to lead USM, but no one wearing a USM uniform had an answer for Wood. No one could match up with UMaine’s Anna Heise, a 6-foot-3 center who missed much of last season because of a foot injury.
So USM double-teamed and boxed out. Ran, hustled and ran some more. Fifield has always sought players who “hate to lose. Anyone can say they love to win.”
Barron had to somehow describe how he didn’t feel his players played to expectations in a 30-point win. “I thought we were a half-second behind all night. We had three starters who were 3 for 18 from the field. We’ve got to do better.”
He didn’t mean that UMaine should have won by 50 points. “I know my players’ abilities and I judge how we win a game on that, not by how many points we won.”
Monday night’s game was an exhibition. The best of two teams and their coaches.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: