The University of Maine will be in a familiar position when it takes the court tonight at the University of Hartford’s Chase Arena in West Hartford.
For the fourth time in five seasons, the Black Bears begin the postseason in the play-in game of the America East Women’s Basketball Championship.
Coach Cindy Blodgett’s Bears (8-20 overall, 4-12 AE) take on border rival New Hampshire (8-21, 3-13 AE) in a 6 p.m. contest. The winner advances to Friday’s 6 p.m. quarterfinal against top-seeded and 23rd-ranked Hartford.
The double-elimination event, which this year is being played simultaneously with the men’s championship, continues with men’s quarterfinals on Saturday and men’s and women’s semifinals on Sunday.
UMaine had hoped to avoid the play-in game, in part to provide some concrete evidence of its perceived improvement this season. Instead, the Bears wound up losing seven of their last eight regular-season contests.
Blodgett said UMaine must develop and exhibit a stronger, more authoritative presence, both mentally and physically, now that they’re in the tournament.
“We’re searching to become a tougher team,” Blodgett said. “That’s not just one individual, that’s every single person.
“I think there’s times when we play as a team with a certain toughness about us that gives us an edge and then there’s other times when maybe one or two people have that edge but the rest of us don’t.”
UMaine has shown signs of taking its game to the next level this season. While its offense has been somewhat inconsistent, the Bears have played better defense, primarily going man-to-man.
Perhaps most importantly, the players take more confidence into every game, including tonight’s matchup.
“We all know that we can do it, that we can beat any team,” said sophomore forward Samantha Wheeler, who has been UMaine’s leading scorer and rebounder most of the season.
“We really, truly have to believe it when we step on the court,” she explained. “If we just come together and everybody is focused and has the right mindset toward the right goal, then we can do great in the tournament.”
The Bears should be encouraged by the fact they beat the Wildcats twice during the regular season, albeit by a combined 12 points. New Hampshire has struggled similarly (26-35) during the three-year tenure of coach Kristin Cole.
However, no player on the UMaine roster has experienced a postseason victory with the Bears, who have lost four straight AE tourney contests.
Blodgett and her players know UMaine must go into the game with the mindset it must get every rebound, track down loose balls first and play cohesively on the offensive end. It will take that kind of determination, and physical and mental toughness, to win in the tournament.
“We always do work hard but we don’t always work smart and that’s what kills us,” said senior forward Katia Bratishko. “We’ve got to be more aggressive.”
The Bears will rely on the leadership and experience of their two seniors during the tournament. Kristin Baker of Bingham and Bratishko have been at UMaine through the lean times, but were quick to reiterate how the team’s mentality has been transformed, especially this season.
“I know we can play with everyone in this conference when we show up to play and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Baker said.
BEAR TRACKS: UMaine’s last postseason victory came in 2006, as the No. 8 seed. The Bears posted a 73-56 first-round win over No. 9 Albany … UMaine is expected to have nine healthy players available for the tournament, although freshman guard Amber Smith has not played since Jan. 7 and is likely to redshirt … Senior guard Amanda Tewksbury will accompany the team to West Hartford. Her mother, Laura, died Friday at age 49 of a prolonged illness. The funeral is scheduled for Saturday in Franklin Township, N.J. UMaine recently announced Tewksbury would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. She was the Bears’ No. 3 scorer (8.5 points per game) and their No. 2 rebounder (5.7 rpg).