It was a feel-good moment in a college basketball career that hasn’t produced many.
And everything about it seemed abnormal somehow.
On the verge of scoring her 1,000th career point for Maine, Ashleigh Roberts drifted to the left corner. She is not accustomed to inhabiting corners, whether she was leading the outcry over the firing of Coach Cindy Blodgett or shouldering her way into the lane for a layup.
Maine was already well ahead of an overmatched Maryland-Baltimore County team. Victories, let alone blowouts, have been hard to come by in Roberts’ four years in Orono. Her teams have achieved just 28 of them.
When Sigi Koizar swung the ball Roberts’ direction, she didn’t hesitate to launch a 3-pointer, a facet of her offense that has been largely untapped. When the long-range shot hit the bottom of the net, it was one of only 34 in her career
That smooth shot belied the bumpy road Roberts has traveled. She became the 17th Black Bear to reach the 1,000-point plateau, but it’s doubtful that any other has endured so much upheaval along the way.
“I did not know going into the game how close it was,” Roberts said of the milestone, laughing at the memory. “But Ali (Nalivaika), told me, ‘All right Ash, all right Ash, you only need 12 points.’ I was like, ‘get out of my face.’ Her and I were joking around. ‘I’m going to get to nine points, and even if I get a wide-open layup, I’m going to dribble back to the 3-point line. Even if it takes me five games, I’m going to do it on a 3-pointer.’”
Roberts has more reason to laugh this season. She finally has some continuity around her after three seasons spent adjusting to new coaches and teammates. She is no longer butting heads with Coach Richard Barron after two tense winters.
Most important, her team is winning, with a 13-11 record after Sunday’s 65-53 win over Binghamton at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“I’m ecstatic with where we are. We could go out with a winning record. We have a real chance to make some noise in the conference,” Roberts said. “I’m obviously leaving the program a lot better than it was when I came.”
‘A FEROCIOUS COMPETITOR’
Roberts didn’t begin playing basketball in her hometown of Wilmington, Del., until the seventh grade. She preferred karate, then gymnastics early on.
But once she did pick up a basketball, there was a single-minded devotion.
“I liked to score. It just always gave me a thrill,” Roberts said.
Two years later, she was good enough to make the varsity team at Concord High School, where she starred for four years. She left with 1,646 points, the most in school history for either gender and eighth-highest total for any Delaware girl.
John Armstrong was her coach. He said Roberts remains one of the top five players he’s had in his 24 seasons.
“We had some games where we were down 15, 16 points at halftime. Ashleigh came out in the second half and scored 30 points and we would win,” Armstrong said. “She was just a ferocious competitor with a strong will to succeed.
“On her off days, she’d run a couple miles down to the Y to play against the boys, against the men. She just wasn’t going to be denied.”
Roberts had an ulterior motive for the extra time in the gym. At 5-foot-9, she was needed in the post on her high school team. But she knew that if she wanted to play in college, she would have to learn a guard’s skills. At the YMCA, she worked on ball-handling, driving to the basket and drawing fouls, making free throws.
Her college choices came down to Boston University and Maine. But Roberts said she was confused about the Terriers’ interest in her, since it seemed to ebb and flow. At Maine, then coached by Blodgett, “I felt like me going to school (at Maine, I would be able to) make a difference and not just be another player on the roster.”
Roberts made an immediate impact in Orono, averaging 10.7 points per game to lead all rookies in the America East Conference. She appreciated Blodgett’s confidence in her. But the Black Bears went 4-25 that season and the coach took the fall, getting fired in March.
Roberts was distraught. The team met with the media, and she was chosen to read the statement they drafted protesting the move.
Barron, who had been an assistant at North Carolina State, came on board in May. It was a rocky transition for player and coach. Both are admittedly headstrong, and clashes were inevitable. Roberts didn’t hide her loyalty to the previous coaching regime, and pushed back when Barron introduced some changes.
She felt like her opinions weren’t welcomed.
“It was just like I wouldn’t even try to explain myself to someone who is committed to misunderstanding me anyway,” Roberts said. “It made me not want to listen because he’s not listening to me.”
She said she never considering transferring, because that would be akin to running away from the problem.
Instead, she spent the summer after her junior season, another dismal 4-24 campaign, back home in Delaware. The distance helped, as did the message Roberts got from her boyfriend.
“He said, ‘Listen, Coach Barron is not your enemy. You’re not fighting against him,’ ” Roberts recalled. “I really worked hard this offseason, because it kind of came down to, this is my last chance. What a waste for a personal conflict to keep you from reaching your potential.”
Barron said he noticed a difference in Roberts when school resumed.
“She’s buying into what we’re teaching. She’s looking for ways to make that work instead of defending why she should do it her way,” he said.
“She’s developed a much greater sense of humility and has accepted that the things that we’re asking of her, when we’re critical, that’s coaching. That’s how you get better.”
The rest of the young team has noticed the change, too, said guard Courtney Anderson, a roommate of Roberts for the past two years.
“It took a while for both of them to warm up to each other. Because in a lot of senses they were both right, but they weren’t seeing the other side of it. They couldn’t swap minds,” Anderson said. “I hoped that Ashleigh and Coach Barron would always get a great relationship and they have this year.”
A SENIOR’S COUNTDOWN
Roberts is the lone senior that plays significant minutes for Maine. She is leading the team with 13.2 points per game on a robust 51-percent shooting. She is second on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game.
She is starting to tame her tendency to turn the ball over, cutting them from nearly four per game in nonconference play to two per league contest. It’s a result of not driving recklessly to the basket when there are other options.
“She’s getting better about her decision-making,” Barron said, “Her pull-up jump shot has been good. Her 3-point shooting is improved. So she’s become more versatile at the offensive end.
“She’s becoming a better passer, seeing other players, not feeling like she’s shouldering the load on offense but understanding her responsibility.”
Anderson, a junior, said she can sense that Roberts is playing with a greater sense of urgency. She said the two have often had deep discussions about life and religion, and basketball.
“She’s explained it to me many times that your senior year you play every game like it’s your last,” Anderson said. “It’s a countdown. She’s got a countdown going. And if you just think about it in that sense of the game, Ash is just trying to take advantage of every opportunity she has.”
Roberts’ countdown is at six games, plus the conference tournament. She is not sure what her distant future holds, only that it will likely occur back in Delaware and not in frigid Maine. Her degree will be in financial economics. She said she will miss the tremendous fans and her teammates. She is hopeful they can send her out with a victory in the conference tournament, and an NCAA berth. It would be a stark turnaround for a career that has been so trying.
But Roberts also finds herself looking back these days, to the player she was in high school.
“I just played so fearlessly. I was really after the ball, getting steals, rebounds, I just played so hard,” she said.
“I don’t feel like I play now as hard as I would like to. You feel caught up in the moment where it’s like every single possession matters so much, it’s like life and death.
“It was just there without even trying. I love playing now, but there’s so much strategy to the game. You also have to be under control.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: