Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Mark Emmert email@example.com
BANGOR — Whatever this season brings for the Maine women’s basketball team, it’s clear they’re all in it together.
Richard Barron has a women’s basketball team that has bonded and is ready to keep working its way back from last year’s rock-bottom 4-24 season.
Photos by Michael C. York/Special to the Telegram
Liz Wood decided to leave her native Virginia because she wanted to make an impact on a changing program.
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.”
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Ashleigh Roberts, who leads the Black Bears in scoring, believes the team can become a factor in America East this season.
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Coach Richard Barron has gone out of the country to recruit: Half of the players are foreigners, all of them underclassmen.