ORONO — Mikaela Gustafsson journeyed from Sweden to play basketball at the University of Maine on the promise of hard work and fun.

Her freshman year contained little of the latter. There was a 10-game stretch – all Black Bears losses – during which the 6-foot-2 Gustafsson scored a grand total of nine points. The game was more physical. She was missing home.

“In practice, we were messing up, we were running a lot. I was like, ‘What am I doing here? This is no fun,'” Gustafsson recalled. “It was just kind of that first time that you realize where you are.”

Where she is now is manning the post for a team with high postseason hopes. The Black Bears (24-7) enter the America East Conference tournament Saturday in Binghamton, New York, as the No. 2 seed, thanks to the bond that Gustafsson and six other seniors formed during that trying freshman season.

Gustafsson, averaging 8.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, is a far cry from that timid rookie questioning whether she could adjust to life in the lane in American college basketball.

“If I give in, what does that say about me?” Gustafsson said of her reason for sticking it out. “Because I care so much about these girls and I want them to do well, and it’s important that I give my best for them, too. Because I can’t expect them to give their all if I can’t do it myself.”

The seeds of Maine’s success the past two seasons were sown somewhere in the misery of that 4-24 season in 2012-13. A summer of grueling workouts followed, then a step forward in the form of a 17-15 sophomore campaign. Last year, Maine finished 23-8 and tied with Albany atop the America East standings. That’s where the Black Bears find themselves again this year, riding an 11-game winning streak into the conference tournament.

Gustafsson has improved along with the team, putting up 3.7 points as a freshman, 4.8 as a sophomore and 5.8 as a junior. Her biggest stride, however, came this year, which saw her average 28.8 minutes per contest, third-highest on a senior-laden squad.

“I think she’s asserted herself more. She’s certainly not afraid of physical play,” Maine Coach Richard Barron said of Gustafsson. “She understands as well as anybody how to be a post with the ball and let our offense flow through her, and how to keep the ball moving.”

Barron first saw Gustafsson on a whirlwind trip through Europe in which he also spotted future Black Bears Chantel Charles (England), Anna Heise (Germany), Milica Mitrovic (Serbia) and Sophie Weckstrom (Finland). It was just after Barron’s first season in Orono had ended with an 8-23 record and an exodus of players. It was a time of admitted desperation for the coach.

Gustafsson, meanwhile, was being encouraged by her parents, Mats and Susanne, to head to America for the strong basketball competition and to hone her English-language skills.

Gustafsson sent Barron a highlight tape of her playing the wing for her Swedish team, on which she was the third-tallest player. He replied that he could be there in two weeks. A college commitment soon was born.

“It was just comforting to know that he had been there and he had seen me play in person. I felt really confident about that, rather than going somewhere where they’d only seen me on tape,” Gustafsson said.

She ventured to Maine in June 2012 and quickly became tight with an international cast that included star forward Liz Wood of Virginia, guard Lauren Bodine of Kentucky and, two years later, forward Bella Swan of Utah.

Gustafsson and Heise were the centers in the group, and quickly started battling in practice.

“We were fighting for the starting spot, so obviously we would always go hard against each other. It wasn’t good some days. We just wouldn’t stop,” Heise said. “But after practice it was fine. She made me better.”

The two have been roommates for three years now. Heise, whose playing time has diminished this season, has come to appreciate her counterpart’s impressive offensive array.

“There’s nobody who can stop her in the post. I don’t think she really knows that herself,” Heise said. “We always tell her: If you have the ball, score.”

Gustafsson has been a consistent option for Maine all season. She can take over games at times, as she did when scoring 18 points in a win at Dartmouth. But Barron said her biggest strength is her versatility.

“I don’t think there are many, if any, other bigs in our league who have the combination of ability to score with her back to the basket, ability to handle and distribute the ball, ability to drive and finish from mid-range to even the 3-point line,” he said. “And she can pass the ball and set up guards well.”

None of this seemed possible three years ago.

“It’s really a sisterhood for all of us,” Gustafsson said of a career that she hopes concludes at the NCAA Tournament. “We’ve all become so close. Coach Barron did a great job finding people of the right character.”