BANGOR — Whatever this season brings for the Maine women’s basketball team, it’s clear they’re all in it together.
Coaches. Players. Even the fans.
That was evident Friday night at the Cross Insurance Center, after the Black Bears dismantled Massachusetts before an appreciative crowd of 1,468.
In a burst of giddy spontaneity, players summoned children out of the bleachers and down to center court for some impromptu line-dancing.
Two things are certain – there will be more smiles and more victories for this winter’s Black Bears.
Indeed, despite a loss Saturday to Wisconsin-Green Bay, Maine already has equaled last year’s win total of four.
Happy days may be here again for a once-high-stepping but recently downtrodden Black Bears program.
“It’s only because they are so close,” third-year Coach Richard Barron said about his team’s early-season turnaround. “That goes back to going through some pretty tough times last year and sticking together. . . . As strange as it sounds, we’re all thankful for last year because it made us better.”
Maine had just experienced five rocky seasons, never winning more than eight games. But last year was rock-bottom.
The Black Bears, the least-experienced Division I team in the nation, finished 4-24 and made national headlines only because of a horrifying bus crash Feb. 26 en route to a game in Boston that never happened. The coaches and players all survived but the team opted not to play in the America East tournament.
What followed, Barron said, was an offseason of work and a team that entered this campaign with an indelible bond.
The Black Bears won their first three games of the season for the first time since 1989. They were crushed at Syracuse but responded with their best showing of Barron’s tenure, displaying crisp passing, accurate shooting, quick hands on defense and claiming an 86-56 victory over UMass.
“We’re starting to find our identity. I think anyone who watches our games, they can see that forming and that’s really fun to watch when we get those moments,” said sophomore forward Liz Wood, who leads the team with 7.2 rebounds per game. “Now, if we can make that more consistent . . . .”
A SETTING FOR SUCCESS
Maine won at least 20 games 14 times in a 16-season stretch from 1984-2000. When the Black Bears are flourishing, a women’s basketball ticket is a hot commodity.
It’s that fan support that Barron said makes the Maine job so attractive, despite the recent six-season slide.
He came to Orono after serving as an assistant at Baylor and North Carolina State. But he’s heard referees’ whistles echo off empty seats in some of America’s biggest gyms. In Maine, even at the new 5,800-seat Cross Center, that’s not a problem.
“Patience is always difficult. It never happens as fast as you want it or fans want it,” Barron said of his rebuilding efforts.
“But there are things about us that other people can’t match, and one of those is just the engagement of the community and their desire to see a strong women’s basketball team.”
Toward that end, the players have begun fanning out into the seats to greet spectators individually before each game. The postgame dance with young fans is planned for each home victory.
It’s part of what drew Wood from her native Virginia to Maine in the first place.
“I didn’t want to be just another player who went through the program and had no effect on it. I wanted to be a part of something that was changing a program for the better,” she said. “Maine is a great place for women’s basketball. Everyone’s so involved and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The Black Bears went 8-23 in Barron’s first season, during which he said he realized he needed to dramatically alter his recruiting philosophy if he wanted to see rapid improvement.
He targeted European players with more polished offensive games than the typical U.S. teenager, young women who were eager to play basketball and study in America.
Six of Maine’s 12 players are foreigners, all of them underclassmen. That includes guards Sophie Weckstrom of Finland and Sigi Koizar of Austria, preternaturally smooth players who can bring a jolt of energy off the bench. They supplement offensive leaders Ashleigh Roberts and Wood, a pair of wings with impressive skills in the post or on the perimeter. The result is a diverse offense that can be magical to behold when at its best, as in the Massachusetts game.
“There’s a lot more depth,” Barron said of the impact of his imports. “They’re skilled players but they’re great kids and they’re invested here. They’re excited about studying in the U.S. and the team is their family, so maybe there is more of a close-knit group as a result.”
STABILITY AND HOPE
The challenge for Maine was revealed starkly in Saturday’s 66-49 loss to a Wisconsin-Green Bay team that is the gold standard of mid-major success. The Phoenix (5-1) have had 36 straight winning seasons and were 148-19 in their previous five, including a Sweet 16 appearance. They have a stranglehold on Horizon League supremacy.
They exposed some of Maine’s flaws. The Black Bears’ primary post players – 6-foot-2 Mikaela Gustaffson of Sweden and 6-3 Anna Heise of Germany – are more comfortable at the 3-point arc than deep in the paint. As a result the Black Bears are being outrebounded by 3.5 per game and have shot 33 fewer free throws than opponents.
Green Bay outscored Maine 42-16 in the paint.
Still, Maine has all the markings of a team on the rise. Barron professed to having no goals for his team, but getting to .500 would be a significant accomplishment, one certainly within its grasp.
Roberts, a senior who has scored in double figures in each game this season and leads the Black Bears at 16.3 points per contest, said she senses something different this year, and not just in the 4-2 record.
“We’ve never had the same team from one year to the next year since I’ve been here. And we do now. So it’s definitely easy to see growth,” she said. “You could see in which areas each player had improved.
“I think we’re more mentally tough and I think that translates into the way we’ve been performing in games. Because early on we’ve gotten down and I remember thinking like, ‘Oh, man, not again.’ Because last year if that would have happened we would have gone into slumps and that would have been it. That would have been the game.”
Maine’s next home game is the Dec. 11 conference opener against Hartford. The Black Bears were picked sixth in the league preseason poll.
Roberts and Wood were asked if Maine could contend for a conference championship. That’s a premature question, Wood started to say, but Roberts, with one last chance to help the Black Bears rebound, interrupted.
“I think we can,” Roberts said. “Just because of the simple fact the league title can be decided in one game.
“If we compete in one game, absolutely. Why not?”
Mark Emmert can be reached at 791-6424 or at: