WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The University of Maine women’s basketball team had hoped to begin its resurgence in earnest during the 2009-10 season.
While the Black Bears made gains, their season ended as it had the previous two years, with a loss in the play-in game of the America East Championship.
UMaine posted an 8-21 record, including a 4-12 conference mark. It was the most victories in coach Cindy Blodgett’s three seasons.
Although the Bears were more competitive, the lack of a dynamic and consistent scorer and a rash of injuries helped conspire to keep the team from moving up in the America East hierarchy.
Blodgett said the team’s future success hinges on the continued commitment and hard work of the returning players.
“There’s no question we’ve made improvements throughout the year, but the step that we need to take is probably going to be our most difficult step and that’s something that it’s tough to try to get the players to understand that, because close isn’t good enough for our team any more,” Blodgett said.
“Each one of our players has to look in the mirror and say, what am I good at, continue to work on that,” she added, “and then, what are my weaknesses, I’ve got to shore up those weaknesses. That’s how we get better as a team.”
Next season, Blodgett heads into the final year of her original four-year contract. UMaine is 20-69 under the former All-American from Clinton, but athletic director Blake James is confident about the future of the program.
“I definitely feel that we’re making progress,” James said. “From a season standpoint, am I disappointed? Yeah, I’m disappointed, but I think there’s no one that wants Maine women’s basketball to be more successful than coach Blodgett.”
“It’s not something that you see changing overnight,” he added. “It’s a process you see changing over time.”
This winter, the Bears’ biggest gains came on defense. Relying more on man-to-man principles, they allowed 64.8 points per game.
UMaine’s margin of defeat in league play was 15.1 ppg overall (9.0 ppg against teams other than Hartford and Vermont). The Bears lost six of 17 conference games by 10 points or less.
The Bears lacked offense, averaging 54.6 ppg. It was an improvement over last season (52.0), but they shot only 36 percent from the field, including 27 percent on 3-pointers.
UMaine had trouble finishing on close-range shots and didn’t have a consistent perimeter attack to stretch defenses effectively.
“I think offensively, we’ve got to get a scorer, we flat-out do,” Blodgett said. “And the kids have to work on their individual games and become better at scoring.”
While turnovers were again a key issue, UMaine’s 20.0 average was a decrease of three per game compared to 2008-09.
A trio of seniors helped the Bears hold their own. Guards Kristin Baker of Bingham (10.0 points, 3.8 assists per game) and Amanda Tewksbury (8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), along with forward Katia Bratishko (6.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) provided a foundation.
Tewksbury, who was sidelined by a knee injury later in the season, and Baker were among four regulars who average 30-plus minutes per game.
Sophomore forward Samantha Wheeler came into her own, leading the team in scoring (10.8) and rebounding (7.2) on her way to all-league, third-team honors.
Freshman Katelyn Vanderhoff was the impact newcomer, playing point guard for the first time in her career. After overcoming an early-season illness that forced her to miss seven games, she averaged 6.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists with less than a turnover per contest.
Tanna Ross of Newburgh (6.7 ppg), the lone senior next season, came back from a broken foot to play in nine games and provide a 3-point presence.
Freshman Corinne Wellington (4.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg) and sophomore Samantha Baranowski (4.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) shared center duties, but were inconsistent offensively and turnover-prone.
Sophomore point guard Brittany Williams was a gritty defender as was classmate Jasmine Rush before she was lost in January with a knee injury.
Freshman guard Amber Smith played in three games and is expected to redshirt.
UMaine was beset by injuries from the outset as freshmen Rachele Burns of Gorham (knee) and forward Shareka Maner (shoulder) missed the entire season and underwent surgery.
Ross returned in late January after Rush sustained her injury, but Tewksbury experienced problems with her knee and her production dwindled before she sat out the last seven games.
“I think the maturity of the team is on its way,” Ross said. “Our leaders have started to step up and will continue to step up. The team’s going to continue to grow, and it’s in the right direction.”
The Bears return a solid nucleus that features Vanderhoff at the point, Ross at shooting guard, Wheeler at small forward and either Wellington or Baranowski at center. Williams can handle the point, allowing Vanderhoff to play the “2” guard.
Maner is a good candidate to play power forward, while Rush and Burns must get completely healthy to contribute. Smith is a guard-forward with scoring potential.
UMaine will welcome two forwards in Alison Nalivaika, a defense-minded 6-4 post player, and Jaymie Druding, a 6-2 power forward.
Vanderhoff and Williams must be more aggressive off the dribble and get into the paint often. That will open up Ross and Smith on the perimeter and free up the post players.
Wheeler must work on finishing inside and extending her shooting range, while Baranowski and Wellington need to become a lot stronger.
The returning players are confident things are headed in the right direction.
“We’re just like this [holding fingers slightly apart] close, we’re right around the corner,” Wheeler said. “With hard work in postseason, for next season, we can be with every single team, we can be at the top of the conference.”