How does a complementary player on a very good high school team suddenly transform into the player a college team intends to build around?

In the case of University of Southern Maine freshman shooting guard Kristen Curley it was all about belief.

USM women’s basketball coach Samantha Allen believed in Curley, the hometown kid from Gorham High.

“She’s been on our radar for a while as someone with tremendous athletic potential,” Allen said.

Then it was up to Curley to have faith that she could grow into a starring role.

On Tuesday, the 5-foot-10 Curley was named the New England Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association (NEWBA) Rookie of the Year and to the NEWBA all-rookie team. Previously Curley was tabbed by the Maine Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association as its rookie of the year and a second-team all-state player.

At Gorham High, Curley was a four-year varsity player but always in the shadow of classmate Emily Esposito. When the Rams won their first of two consecutive Class AA state titles in Curley’s junior season, the roster included three Division I-caliber players in Esposito (now at Villanova), Danasia Fennie (Alcorn State) and current Gorham junior Mackenzie Holmes. Add in talented point guard Kaylea Lundin and Curley’s offensive opportunities usually boiled down to a handful of 3-point attempts.

“I played for a very good team where I was just a role player and really didn’t do too much,” Curley said. “I didn’t have much confidence all through high school and I had to pretend that I did, just to fake it until I made it.”

There was no faking the success Curley had in her freshman season at USM, and she has a lengthy list of accolades that are still rolling in to prove it.

In the Little East Conference, where USM posted a 9-5 record (14-13 overall), Curley was a first team, all-defensive and all-rookie pick and was named the league’s rookie of the year.

Curley, 18, evolved from a 3-point shooter into an all-around scoring threat, averaging a team-leading 16.0 points, with 4.9 rebounds. She led the Huskies in field-goal percentage (50.5), 3-point percentage (39.7, making 48 3-pointers), blocks (30) and steals (56). She was also one of just three Huskies to play all 27 games.

“Whomever you were, a coach, a fan, a player, you couldn’t help but watch some of our games and say, ‘Wow, she brings that extra level to the game that we’ve been missing for some years,'” Allen said. “We’re excited to see what she can do and to build a strong team and support staff around her.”

Gorham Coach Laughn Berthiaume says he was “pleasantly surprised,” by how quickly Curley adapted to the college game but never doubted she could be a force at USM.

“I did think she had it in her,” Berthiaume said. “She was always the most athletic kid on the team and the best shooter on the team – but you know what, she looked around and said, ‘What does the team need me to do to be successful?'”

At USM, Allen and her coaching staff made it clear that what their team needed was for Curley to look for her shot.

In nine of USM’s first 10 games, Curley came off the bench and quickly showed she could provide instant offense. In her third collegiate game, she made all six of her shots. The next game, she scored 20 points.

The Huskies started the season 0-6. It was Curley’s 29-point effort off the bench that keyed the first win.

As the weekly honors rolled in – 16 different rookie of the week nods from three different organizations – Curley become a marked woman, which required another adjustment.

“The biggest thing I noticed was how hard they were playing me,” Curley said. “They didn’t leave me open ever. The only way I could get shots was if we ran plays or if I had to create my own. They had put their best defender on me and that was a lot to handle. I’d never had that before.”

Curley’s scored in double digits in 20 of 27 games. Her 35 points in a 79-77 win against Western Connecticut State on Jan. 20 ranks tied for sixth on the all-time single-game scoring list at USM. Curley’s 433 points were the fourth-highest single-season total by a USM freshman behind two-time All-American Maureen Burchill (635 in 1981-82), Tiffany Jones (554 in 2002-03) and Curran Leighton (492 in 2009-10). Even as Curley started to feel the grind of a much longer college season, she produced, averaging 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over the final six games.

“In the offseason I need to work on all the different aspects of my game and get in the gym and work on my strength. That definitely dwindled away,” Curley said. “My body was taking a beating by the end of the season. I was not used to that.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig