Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Mark Emmert firstname.lastname@example.org
(Continued from page 1)
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.
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?”
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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.