ORONO — Rachele Burns has learned not to get her hopes too high when it comes to basketball.
After three reconstructive surgeries on her right knee — during a span of only two years — each additional day she can play the game she loves is a bonus.
That is what made Saturday so special for the University of Maine point guard.
The redshirt freshman from Gorham made her collegiate debut, coming off the bench in the Black Bears’ 66-55 loss to South Alabama in the consolation game of the 18th Dead River Co. Classic.
“At the end of the game, coach (Blodgett) said, ‘welcome back,’ and it just feels good to be back and be able to help the team,” Burns said.
Burns, who had her third knee surgery almost a year ago, played 16 minutes Saturday, scoring two points, grabbing two rebounds and providing one assist.
She did some running during preseason before she was given medical clearance a month ago to resume a full practice regimen.
“I probably would have struggled in the beginning if I hadn’t have practiced or been in the game shape that I needed to be (in),” Burns said. “I could still be in better shape and it’s only going to come competing at practice every day and working hard.”
Burns did not appear to have any difficulty moving around on the court, despite wearing a brace on the knee. She had a good handle while dribbling the ball and seemed to make good decisions with her passes.
Burns made a nice crossover move on her only jump shot, which she hit, and also was usually able to keep up with her player while playing man-to-man defense.
“She literally has just been practicing for the last four weeks,” Blodgett said. “She and Jaymie (Druding) are just starting to get into the mix and they’re both competitive kids. I think that’s going to really help in practice.”
There were a few subtle moments during the game when Burns’ teammates acknowledged her return with a few words or a pat on the back.
At this point, Burns isn’t taking anything for granted.
“To me, it’s either going to happen or it’s not,” she said of making a complete comeback and remaining healthy. “I’ve come to the fact that I have to get over that and I’ve just got to give it 110 percent every time that I’m out there, because you never know when it’s your last. All I can do is work my hardest.”
The more, the merrier?
Coach Blodgett and her staff suddenly have a problem, albeit a good one.
With players returning from injuries and becoming available, UMaine has more options for its lineup as it continues nonconference play with a Wednesday night game at Kansas.
The Bears had 13 of their 14 players in uniform during last week’s Dead River Co. Classic as redshirt freshman forward Shareka Maner, who has an ankle injury, was the only player sidelined.
UMaine already was trying to build its on-court chemistry with the addition of freshman guard Ashleigh Roberts and redshirt freshman Amber Smith before Burns came into the fold. And those dynamics also affect the roles of not only guards Brittany Williams and Katelyn Vanderhoff, but the rest of the squad.
Each player has particular strengths, weaknesses and tendencies that differ as the personnel mix changes. It affects cohesiveness at both ends of the floor.
“Part of it is just trying to create shots for others so that they are easier shots,” Blodgett said of finding a good blend. “I think we’re getting penetration from the guards and now it’s just getting used to when someone does penetrate and draw someone (defensively), our guards and even our posts have to spot up or move to a different area so they can have a nice, comfortable, open shot.”
Blodgett said the challenge is to make that happen sooner rather than later.
Up front, freshman Druding has rehabbed a knee injury and is trying to carve a niche for herself. That means some adjustments for post players Samantha Baranowski, Corinne Wellington and Samantha Wheeler.
“This just shows that we need to go into practice with a competitive edge, that we need to take it out on each other, so that when we come into games it’s more of a second nature,” Wheeler said of learning to play together.
Blodgett said the Bears must focus on competing hard in practice so the results are evident during games.
“That practice time, that particular day, is your game,” she said, “and if you can adopt that mentality, when the games actually show up you’re comfortable and you’re completely ready.”
Smith steps into key role
Smith is off to a strong start for the Bears after sitting out most of her first year at UMaine.
The 5-11 shooting guard is the team’s leading scorer through five games, averaging 13.8 points per game. She also is averaging 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting 51 percent from the field (including 50 percent on 3-pointers) and 71 percent from the foul line.
Smith, the America East Rookie of the Week, scored in double figures the first four games this season, becoming the first UMaine freshman to accomplish that feat since Missy Traversi in 2001.
Smith appeared in three games last season for the Bears, logging 21 minutes, but eventually was redshirted.