February 28, 2013

Small College Notebook: Spotlight beckons for UNE women

The Nor'easters have a chance for recognition and respect with an NCAA tourney victory.

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com

Anthony Ewing was blunt. Nobody, he told his University of New England players during practice this week, believes you'll win your next game.

click image to enlarge

Anthony Ewing has been a success as the UNE women’s basketball coach, and now he’s hoping for the next step – winning an NCAA Division III tournament game.

Courtesy Photo

That 19-game win streak to end the regular season? It doesn't matter. That 69-63 victory over Salve Regina to win the Commonwealth Coast Conference tournament last Saturday? It changes nothing.

"People already are talking about how exciting the Bridgewater State-Amherst matchup is going to be Saturday," said Ewing. "They're forgetting we play Friday."

What, you thought NCAA Division III women's basketball teams can't play the we-don't-get-respect card? Ewing, the sixth-year coach and Portland native has had that up his sleeve all season.

Twelve of his 16 players are freshmen or sophomores. The Nor'easters weren't expected to win the conference championship let alone qualify for the 64-team NCAA tournament that starts Friday around the country. UNE (22-4) plays Bridgewater State (23-2), champion of the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference, in the first game of a doubleheader at Amherst College.

Amherst (25-2) is the New England Small College Athletic Conference champion. It plays Farmingdale State (12-12), champion of the New York-based Skyline Conference, in the second game.

UNE has qualified for the NCAA tournament three times in the past four years but hasn't won a tournament game. "That's our motivation, believe me," said Ewing. "Until we get that first W, it's hard to get recognized, even in our own state. We understand that."

By comparison the University of Southern Maine women have been to the NCAA tournament 26 times in 28 years and have won 44 games. Beth Suggs, UNE's 6-foot senior forward, isn't interested in comparisons.

"This could possibly be my last game," said Suggs (Bath/Morse High). "I'm not ready for that."

She is the conference player of the year. Sixteen times in 26 games she scored at least 10 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds. She's the focus of any opponent's scouting report.

"I personally take it as a challenge. (Increased attention on me) allows our whole team to work together."

If Bridgewater State overplays Suggs, that will give freshmen Meghan Gribbin (Windham) or Kelly Coleman (Portland, Conn.) or Sadie DiPierro (South Portland, McAuley) or someone else an opportunity to score.

DiPierro and Gribbin are two of the eight freshmen on the team. Neither feels like a rookie anymore. After the first semester, Ewing told his youngest players they had already aged.

"Coach always stresses we have to play as sophomores," said DiPierro. "He's right."

DiPierro, a 5-foot-8 guard, played four seasons at McAuley, winning two state championships and reaching the Western Maine tournament every year. There is no comparison in the speed, strength and intelligence of college players versus high school players, but the big-game environment DiPierro experienced at McAuley has helped this year.

"We don't expect to outsmart our opponents," said Ewing. "It's all about who's going to make the smart plays. Mistakes are not an option."

Bridgewater State has been successful, said Ewing, with a four-guard lineup and a 5-foot-9 post player. UNE will have a size advantage.

"We're back to square one," said Suggs. "We have clean and clear minds. Instead of worrying about how young we are, we're going to focus on what we do best.

"As a freshman playing in my first tournament, I was intimidated. I was nervous before I settled down. This time I think we have to expect our freshmen to not play like freshmen any- more. We can get it done."

(Continued on page 2)

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