BIDDEFORD — When Sam McDonald swished a jumper in the third quarter Wednesday, the University of New England women’s basketball team took the expected big lead against the University of Southern Maine.

But that 17-point bulge was down to five early in the fourth quarter.

UNE held on to win 75-63 in the opener for both teams. The Huskies trailed by seven before beginning to foul with 1:13 left and UNE put it away.

Olivia Shaw led the Nor’easters with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Alexa Srolovitz paced USM with 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

For the winning coach, it was a sign of needed work.

“Terrible” is how UNE Coach Anthony Ewing described his team’s play.

The losing coach was encouraged.

“There are a ton of positives,” USM Coach Samantha Allen said. “Considering last year’s game (a 62-46 UNE win), we’ve made some tremendous strides in terms of our defense and offense.”

That’s the difference of perspective between a team reloading and a team rebuilding.

UNE is coming off a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and has several regulars back. The Huskies won five games last year but return nearly all their contributors.

The Nor’easters have defeated USM five straight times and eight of their last nine meetings.

Still, the Huskies jumped ahead 13-8 in the first quarter. Utilizing a press and drives inside, USM looked ready to contend.

“We had a lot of great transitions,” Allen said.

UNE eventually took the lead and never let go. When the Nor’easters needed points, they looked to Shaw, a 6-foot senior from Saco.

“If that kid didn’t show up today, we lose this game,” Ewing said. “We’re going to need her to be like that all year for us.”

Shaw is essential because UNE graduated its stellar go-to player, 6-foot-4 Alicia Brown, last year’s leading scorer (15-point average) and rebounder (6.8). Brown led the Nor’easters to a 23-6 record, including a 17-game winning streak that was ended in the NCAA’s first round, when Scranton hit a last-second 3-pointer for a 49-48 win.

“Having a 6-foot-4 girl who can shoot and post up was nice,” Shaw said. “But now she’s not around so some people have to step up, and one of those people is me.”

Another player expected to step up was 5-10 sophomore Sadie Nelson of Windham. She averaged 10 points and 4.3 rebounds last year. But Nelson suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.

“That was tough,” Ewing said.

UNE still has talent, which showed Wednesday with 5-11 sophomore guard Ashley Coneys (15 points/7 rebounds), 5-7 freshman guard Elyssa Nicholas (13 points, three 3-pointers) and MacDonald, a 5-7 senior guard (11 points/7 rebounds).

“I’m excited where this group takes us,” MacDonald said. “We have some good chemistry.”

MacDonald acknowledged there are situations to work on and her coach would agree, especially after USM outrebounded UNE 53-47 and scored 40 points in the paint.

“We rebounded terribly. Our defense in general was terrible,” Ewing said. “We were not moving our feet, not communicating effectively. … They pushed the ball hard but we have to be better than that.”

USM had to drive after shooting only 3 of 27 from the 3-point arc.

“We have some really great days of shooting and others not so good,” Allen said. “They’ll get in the gym and keep shooting.”

Srolovitz, a 5-6 senior, sparked the Huskies. She was helped by 5-9 senior Emily Nicholson (12 points), 5-5 sophomore Jackie Luckhardt (11 points), 5-9 senior Miranda Nicely (14 rebounds) of Farmington, and 5-10 freshman Kristen Curley (8 points) of Gorham.

“It’s a tremendous starting point for the whole group,” Allen said. “I’m excited where we’re going to go.”

IN THE MEN’S GAME Wednesday night, Southern Maine topped UNE, 97-88.

USM junior Sean Jany led all scorers with 42 points. Ryan Matthews paced the Nor’easters with 14.

Jany gives the Huskies hope in their rebuilding effort. A 6-7 forward from Westbrook, Jany is in his first year at USM, having transferred from Plymouth State. He hit five 3-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots.

The Huskies returned only one starter from last year’s 10-16 team, 6-2 guard Christian McCue, who averaged 12 points. McCue is coming back from a stress fracture in his leg and played only 17 minutes (nine points).

Byron McMillian, a 6-foot guard from Washington D.C., and 6-4 freshman forward Devin Moultrie both added 12 points. Cam Scott, a 6-1 senior guard from Hampden, scored nine, and 6-4 junior guard Kevin Weisser grabbed 16 rebounds.

UNE, which was 7-19 last year, returned four regulars. On Wednesday, the Nor’easters substituted liberally, five players at a time, with no one playing more than 20 minutes.

USM led 43-41 at halftime, then jumped ahead, 59-44. The Nor’easters closed to 92-88 with 1:35 left but the Huskies stayed ahead.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH