Colleen Kilmurray has endured her share of disappointments during a four-year career with the University of Maine women’s basketball program.
That said, going into the America East Championship, the Black Bears’ only senior likes what she has seen from her team in recent weeks.
“I think definitely we’re starting to click at times,” Kilmurray said. “If any time of year, this is the time we want to click.”
Ninth-seeded UMaine (5-24, 3-13 AE) won its regular-season finale against Stony Brook and has gone 3-4 in its last seven games heading into today’s 7 p.m. play-in game against No. 8 Albany (5-24, 3-13 AE) at Chase Arena on the campus of the University of Hartford in West Hartford.
The winner of tonight’s contest earns a date with No. 1 Boston University (22-6, 16-0 AE) in Friday’s 2:15 p.m. (approximately) quarterfinal contest.
There seems to be a sense among coach Cindy Blodgett’s Black Bears that they could do some damage in the tournament.
“What we’re shooting for is to go in and win the conference tournament,” Kilmurray said matter-of-factly. “As hard as it has been this season dealing with all the losses, it can all be forgotten by the end. That’s the great thing about our conference, any team can win on any given night.”
The most recent case in point is the 2007 Maryland Baltimore County team that surged out of the No. 7 spot to knock off the Nos. 2, 3 and 1 teams on its way to the America East title and the NCAA Tournament.
UMaine has been blessed with relatively good health and takes its full complement of 10 players into the postseason. A year ago, the Bears were down to eight players because of injury and attrition.
While the team is by no means on a roll, there is palpable optimism and confidence that has been derived from UMaine’s play of late.
“I think our kids are starting to believe that we are improving,” Blodgett said. “We’re a team that not a lot of people would want to play, because on any given night anything can happen.”
The immediate focus is on Albany, a team with which UMaine split during the regular season. The Great Danes won 70-44 on Jan. 13 at Albany, but the Bears bounced back with a 59-51 victory Feb. 18 in Orono.
“I think obviously getting the first game is the most important one,” Blodgett said. “They understand that it’s attainable. We’re going to have to really work our tails off, because Albany’s going to want to win just as much.”
Blodgett’s upbeat attitude has been derived from the Bears’ improvement during the last five weeks or so. Much of the karma has been generated on the defensive end.
The players’ commitment and work ethic have remained intact, even though they have been infrequent winners.
“They’ve worked their tails off. I’m really pleased with their effort,” said Blodgett, who pointed to an “off” day last week on which nine of the 10 players showed up for an informal workout and individual drills.
“It lets me know that these kids are still fighting and they still want to get better and [that] it’s important to them,” she added.
As is the case with the lower-seeded teams, there aren’t many outside expectations. UMaine, along with Albany, Stony Brook and even No. 6 New Hampshire, have the luxury of letting their opponents deal with the pressure of being the higher seeds.
The Bears realize they have to play together, limit mistakes and have each player take care of her responsibilities.
“I feel like we’ve definitely come a long way,” Kilmurray said. “Everyone pretty much knows their roles at this point and we’re all stepping up defensively, helping each other out, and our [1-2-2 matchup] zone’s looking real good. We’re not a selfish team at all.”
UMaine has a nucleus of veterans led by Kilmurray, Brittany Boser, Kristin Baker of Bingham and Amanda Tewksbury. It also takes four freshmen who have contributed regularly this season into the pressure-packed tournament atmosphere.
Yet the Bears don’t expect to be bothered by any of it, whether it’s turnovers, scoring lulls or playing from behind.
“With our team, we’ve been through it so much this year that when we get down or turn the ball over, we still stick together,” Kilmurray said. “Other teams aren’t really used to that, especially during tournament time. They might collapse or something, but I think we’ve definitely experienced it throughout the year and it’s definitely going to help us going into the tournament.”