BANGOR — Liz Wood had never heard of the Women’s Basketball Invitational when it was first mentioned that her Maine team could end up playing in it.
She’s not alone.
The tournament has existed for only five years and tends to draw low-profile Division I teams. You could call it March Mildness.
But for the two teams who will play at the Cross Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it’s a big step forward.
Bucknell and Maine are two young squads who have had little recent success. The postseason has been a pipe dream.
“We’re just so excited. It says a lot about where this program is going,” said Wood, a sophomore forward.
“The first thing you do is get on your iPhones and look up Bucknell, and see what their record is and what they’re all about.”
Maine (16-14) got the word at 9:30 p.m. Monday that it had made the field for the 16-team tournament. The Black Bears were actually at practice, not knowing if there was going to be a game at the end of all that effort.
“It’s a chance to keep playing, a chance to get better, a chance to promote the team, the program, a chance to celebrate our seniors one more time,” Maine Coach Richard Barron said.
The Black Bears are the seventh seed in the WBI’s East region but get to host the second-seeded Bison (16-13) because the school paid the $10,000 fee for a home game. The tournament pays travel expenses for visiting teams; home teams need to get their money back through tickets and concessions. The Black Bears averaged 1,446 fans at home games this winter.
Maine was 4-24 a year ago and hasn’t reached the postseason since playing in the 2005 WNIT. The WBI allows the Black Bears to celebrate their first winning season since then, but also the chance for extra practice time and a small taste of what basketball in March feels like.
“We’re not where we want to be yet. We’ve got a lot to look forward to. We’ve got a nucleus that’s coming back for the next few years so we’re excited about taking this step,” said Barron, in his fourth season.
“I don’t think anyone would tell you this is our ultimate goal, but it does show we’re improving.”
Bucknell, located in central Pennsylvania and a member of the Patriot League, was 5-25 in 2011-12. Aaron Roussell came aboard as coach the next year and the Bison finished 15-16. The program is making its fourth postseason appearance and looking for its first win.
“The chemistry and bond that the team had has probably produced more victories than our talent level alone would suggest,” Roussell said Tuesday during a 9-hour bus ride north.
“I think it’s been great for us just to get a little extra time together. We’re going to have a good story about this.”
Bucknell is led by senior guard Shelby Romine, who averages 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
The Bison have seven freshmen and three sophomores on the roster.
Maine can relate.
Ashleigh Roberts, the lone senior starter, averaged 13.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. Wood contributed 12.4 and 6.7.
The Black Bears have seven sophomores and two freshmen.
Neither team had much time to prepare for Wednesday’s game, coming less than 48 hours after the announcement of WBI pairings. Both coaches said the result will have more to do with which team can better play to its strengths than what any scouting report will show.
Barron said Bucknell most closely resembles New Hampshire among Maine’s America East Conference opponents. Maine split two close games with the Wildcats this year.
The Bison play man-to-man defense and like to score in transition.
“We just need to play with some tenacity and get after it every play, just know that every possession matters,” Wood said. “If we do that, it doesn’t really matter who we play.”
Roussell said the WBI can be a springboard to future success. Appalachian State won the inaugural tournament in 2010 and took a step up to the WNIT a year later. Minnesota won in 2012 and has been in the WNIT the past two years. Of course, Detroit won last year’s WBI and went 6-24 this season.
A victory would put Maine in the second round this weekend against Bryant or Fairfield, on the road because a boat show is scheduled for the Cross Center.
“Especially for the two teams playing (Wednesday) night, this is a tremendous experience for our kids,” Roussell said.
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or:[email protected]