AUGUSTA, Maine — Kristin Baker played many memorable games playing for Upper Kennebec Valley High School of Bingham in Western Maine Class D basketball tournament games at the Augusta Civic Center.
Sunday afternoon, in her return to the facility, the junior point guard from Bingham was a catalyst for the University of Maine.
Baker scored a career-high 16 points and provided solid court leadership, helping the Black Bears grind out a 54-45 victory over Massachusetts.
“It was great,” Baker said. “I enjoyed playing here back in high school, so I was excited to come back. It was great atmosphere.”
The spunky Baker logged 36 minutes, posting six assists and five rebounds, as UMaine (1-2) got its first win of the season.
“I just know that coming here in high school, it meant a big game always,” Baker added. “In college, it seems like a playoff game every time.”
It was a cohesive defensive performance that laid the foundation for Sunday’s win. The Bears clogged up the middle and also effectively contested perimeter shots out of their 1-2-2 matchup zone.
UMaine stymied the Minutewomen (2-2) to 24 percent floor shooting in the second half and helped generate several of their 27 turnovers.
“I just think we were much more aggressive,” said UMaine coach Cindy Blodgett. “We didn’t lay back and let them come to us. We actually forced the action.”
UMaine received a boost from freshman Samantha Wheeler, who played at the top of the matchup in her collegiate debut. Wheeler, who missed the first two games with plantar fasciitis, finished with two points and five rebounds.
“I love her size,” Blodgett said of the 6-footer. “With her on the top of our matchup, it’s very different. There’s so many ways she’s going to impact our team and we aren’t necessarily going to see it on the box score.”
The Bears also got a strong effort from freshman center Samantha Baranowski, who tossed in 15 points, snagged six rebounds, made two steals and blocked two shots.
“Sam is very good right now, but her room for growth is really impressive,” Blodgett said. “She’s going to be a real force for us.”
UMaine, which outrebounded UMass 37-35, also got 11 points and four rebounds from sophomore swing player Tanna Ross of Newburgh.
The Bears began clicking late in the first half, after spotting UMass a 24-12 lead.
UMaine held UMass scoreless for more than four minutes and four players scored one basket apiece during an 8-0 surge that got the Bears back into the contest at 24-20 and energized the crowd of 1,336.
Another critical aspect of the resurgence was UMaine’s clean play on offense. The Bears went 8 minutes, 40 seconds between turnovers after having committed 10 in the first 8½ minutes.
The Bears made their move early in the second half. Trailing 33-25, they scored 13 unanswered points.
Baranowski connected for seven of the first nine in the run, including a transition layup off a Baker feed that gave UMaine its first lead at 34-33 with 11:56 to play.
UMass responded with five unanswered points to tie the game 38-38, but Baker went 4-for-4 from the foul line as the Bears sank eight straight free throws to regain the momentum with a 46-38 lead.
The Minutewomen couldn’t get closer than five points after that.
UMaine opens at Alfond Arena with the Dead River Co. Classic Friday and Saturday. The Bears take on Brown in Friday’s 6 p.m. contest.