DURHAM, N.H. — During a six-minute span in the second half Tuesday night, the University of Maine women’s basketball team couldn’t put the ball in the basket.
By the time the Black Bears finally got into better synch, they were unable to overcome the 11-point lead New Hampshire had built.
Amy Simpson made two clutch shots in the final 4½ minutes to help the Wildcats stave off UMaine’s late rally on their way to a 51-47 victory in the teams’ mutual America East opener at Lundholm Gym.
“It’s a tough way to open up America East, especially losing to our rival UNH,” said UMaine junior Brittany Boser. “We’re just going to keep at it. We can’t give up, we’ve got to keep coming back strong.”
Freshman guard and Derry, N.H., native Sam Wheeler scored eight of her 10 points in the second half to spark the Bears (2-12), who suffered their eighth consecutive defeat.
UNH (3-11) contained the Bears, limiting them to 6-for-30 floor shooting (20 percent) after intermission. The Bears missed 12 straight shots at one point.
“Poor execution, for almost an entire 20 minutes, does not put you in a position to win any game, regardless of the opponent,” said UMaine coach Cindy Blodgett, who did like the Bears’ defensive effort.
“It was sort of excruciating watching them in the sets because they were really laboring to get into the sets.”
Simpson celebrated her 21st birthday by making sure the Wildcats held onto their hard-earned lead. With 4:32 left and the shot clock winding down, she buried a 3-pointer that pushed the advantage back to six (47-41).
UMaine scored four unanswered points, but Simpson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored from the lane with 1:41 remaining, making it 49-45.
“She can really shoot the ball,” said UNH coach Kristin Cole. “I believe that when it comes time, she’ll make the right ones. I thought both of those baskets were incredibly important.”
Kristin Baker of Bingham led the Bears with 11 points and four rebounds, while Boser provided 10 points and seven rebounds.
UMaine shot 24 percent (16-for-66) in the contest, attempting 16 more shots than UNH but making one fewer.
“A great deal of that was due to our offensive execution, people not being on the same page,” Boser said. “We really need to just buckle down and run our offenses correctly.”
The Bears grabbed a 46-39 advantage on the boards, but the Wildcats outrebounded UMaine 27-11 in the second half.
UMaine committed only 15 turnovers, while UNH had 22.
Candace Williams paced UNH with a game-high 18 points and Simpson finished with 17, including five 3-pointers. She also had five rebounds, four blocked shots, two assists and a steal.
UMaine was without sophomore forward Tanna Ross of Newburgh, who missed her second straight game with a leg injury.
Both teams struggled offensively early in the second half, combining to go scoreless for 4:15 at one juncture. When Colleen Kilmurray made two foul shots to break UMaine’s scoreless drought of 6:10, the Bears trailed only 34-30 with 11:19 to play.
That’s when UNH came to life. Abigail LaRosa’s 3-pointer on the ensuing possession jumpstarted a 7-1 flurry that gave the Wildcats a 42-31 edge with 9:29 to play.
Wheeler, a 6-foot guard, gave UMaine some life with her offensive play. She cut through the paint and scored a layup at the 8:58 mark to ignite a 6-0 surge.
“We really needed to score and I saw open lanes so I just ducked my head and just went for it, tried to score for the team,” Wheeler said.
Boser and Wheeler then made two free throws each as the Bears cut the deficit to 42-37.
UMaine twice got within two points in the final 2:20, but Simpson’s offensive rebound hoop and two Williams free throws, respectively, kept the Wildcats in front.
UMaine returns to action Saturday with a 1 p.m. home game against Hartford.