There already is discernible confidence developing this season within the University of Maine women's basketball team.
The Black Bears haven't played a regular-season game yet, but a positive experience during a tour of Canada in August and two solid exhibition showings recently have demonstrated things appear to be improving.
Saturday night, coach Cindy Blodgett's team overcame some sluggish first-half defense, worked through foul trouble and erased an 11-point, second-half deficit on the scoreboard to post a 77-72 victory.
"We're a different team," Blodgett said. "I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, because we haven't done anything yet, but there's a different energy about this group.They're fun to coach."
UMaine opens the regular season Saturday at noon with a game against Harvard at Alfond Arena in Orono.
The influx of young players during the last three seasons had resulted in inexperienced players filling key roles. Now, it appears most of them are settling in and becoming more comfortable with Division I basketball and the UMaine system.
The players are learning to trust each other's abilities.
"I think we're just a lot more confident this year and if we do make a mistake, we know our teammate's going to pick us right up," said sophomore guard Katelyn Vanderhoff, who arrived last season only to be thrust into the point guard role, a position she had not previously played.
The Bears, through their struggles on the court, have learned to shrug off the mistakes that can occur during a game and instead maintain a positive outlook.
"We're not pointing fingers, we're just taking it and moving on to the next play, which is really important for us this year," Vanderhoff said.
The Bears continue to work on defense and want to be able to mix things up and play man-to-man, their 1-2-2 matchup zone and apply some three-quarter-court zone pressure. Even when the University of New Brunswick put up 44 first-half points Saturday, UMaine made the necessary adjustments.
The Varsity Reds scored only 28 points after intermission and also turned the ball over 18 times in the half in the face of the Bears' defense.
"What I loved about it, the team stuck together," Blodgett said.
She believes the trials and tribulations of the last two seasons have strengthened the resolve of her players.
"I feel like they're going to continue to fight until the very end," Blodgett said. "I feel like we're never going to be out of a game and that's something that has come over time."
While UMaine does not appear to have one offensive star who can carry the scoring load, the team has instead shown better balance and productivity across the board.
Corinne Wellington (16), Ashleigh Roberts (16), Amber Smith (13), Vanderhoff (12) and Sam Baranowski (10), scored in double figures against UNB and eight players got into the scoring column.
"I like our versatility in that regard," Blodgett said of the spread-out offensive production.
UMaine also prevailed despite having leading returning scorer Sam Wheeler limited to 24 minutes before fouling out with 6:34 to play. The Bears didn't bat an eyelash.
"The defensive intensity increased and when we got it on offense we didn't slow it down, we attacked," Blodgett said.
"I think at times when you're young, you sort of shy away from that moment, but I think we're done with that," she added. "That's what losing difficult games does to you is, it makes you fight back and it makes you not afraid of those moments."
Ross back on the court
UMaine received some quality minutes Saturday night from senior swing player Tanna Ross of Newburgh.
Ross has returned after playing only nine games last season, then undergoing offseason knee surgery. She sat out the Husson exhibition game as a precaution after sustaining a blow to the head in a previous practice.
"She's been battling injuries and a credit to her, she continues to work," Blodgett said. "You pull for her because she's a good teammate, she wants to do the right thing."
Ross seemed to play within herself, providing two points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal while taking a player-control foul in 20 minutes of action.