ORONO, Maine — Competing in the play-in game at the upcoming America East Women’s Basketball Championship for the third straight season is something the University of Maine would dearly like to avoid.
Tuesday night, the Black Bears took their first significant step toward bypassing the play-in game and earning a quarterfinal berth.
Senior guard Kristin Baker of Bingham hit five 3-pointers on her way to a 19-point performance that sparked UMaine to a 69-61 America East victory over border rival New Hampshire at Alfond Arena.
“We know that we don’t want to be in the play-in game and we have the ability to make that choice,” said Baker, who also contributed eight rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Coach Cindy Blodgett’s Bears (8-18, 4-10 AE) ended a five-game losing streak while sweeping the season series with the Wildcats (8-18, 3-10 AE) and moving into seventh place in the conference standings.
“Here we are in the middle of February and we control our own destiny in terms of we actually have an opportunity to push a couple teams into that play-in game and allow us to take that next step,” Blodgett said.
The Bears play Saturday afternoon at Binghamton.
UMaine’s combination of man-to-man and 1-2-2 zone defenses, with the emphasis on man-to-man, limited UNH scoring leaders Candace Williams and Denise Beliveau to 16 points, eight below their combined average.
The Wildcats went 5-for-20 from 3-point range.
“That was the mindset going into the game, that we needed to play solid defense,” said sophomore Samantha Wheeler, who posted 12 points and eight rebounds.
“[Jill McDonald], she did a very good job in the post [15 points], but our post players and our guards, we all talked and did very well staying help side and rotating was good this game,” she added.
Baker snapped out of a 5-for-34 shooting drought over the previous four games, finding the range against the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone in the first half. She sandwiched 3-pointers around a Brittany Williams scoop shot from the lane during an 8-0 flurry that gave UMaine a 35-27 lead late in the first half.
“Everybody was cutting and moving and the ball was moving around, so once that happens, you just get open looks,” Baker said.
Williams added 10 points for the Bears, who committed only 14 turnovers and outrebounded UNH 37-30 on their way to 16 second-chance points.
“We’ve said right along that if we control our turnovers, we can score,” Blodgett said.
“People were making the extra pass, they were moving without the ball, they were sure of their passes. That gives you confidence.”
The Wildcats outscored the Bears 7-1 to open the second half and went ahead 39-38 on McDonald’s three-point play at the 17:18 mark.
UMaine responded shortly thereafter behind Wheeler, who scored six points during a 10-0 run that gave the Bears a 52-42 advantage with 11:11 left.
With UNH having switched to man-to-man, Wheeler made two free throws and threw in a runner from the paint before Katelyn Vanderhoff (7 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals) hit a 15-footer in transition off a Williams assist. Vanderhoff then fed Wheeler for a wide-open layup down low and Sam Baranowski hit a 10-footer off a penetrate-and-kick play by Baker to put UMaine in charge.
“I thought Maine did a great job of getting open shots by penetrating the paint and getting us to suck in and being able to kick out,” said UNH coach Kristen Cole. “I think they did a really good job of that and I think they played incredibly hard.”
It was the first time in seven games, since Jan. 28 at Albany, that UMaine had scored 50 points in a game.
The Wildcats kept clawing, but could not must enough consistent offense to get closer than four points during the last nine minutes of play.
UMaine converted seven of its 10 foul shots in the last 1:29 to hold onto the lead.
Amy Simpson provided seven points and eight assists for UNH, which shot 46 percent from the field.
Baker connected went 4-for-6 from 3-point range and UMaine made six 3-pointers on 6-for-10 accuracy to help complement the inside play of Katia Bratishko (eight points) while taking a 37-32 halftime lead.