ORONO — Jen Rizzotti was headed toward the team bus Tuesday night when she walked up beside Cindy Blodgett, who had just wrapped up her postgame press conference.
The University of Hartford women’s basketball coach slung her right arm around her University of Maine counterpart and provided a few words of encouragement.
Hartford played sound man-to-man defense, capitalized on UMaine turnovers and hit shots in key situations in the second half to pull away for a 62-49 America East women’s basketball victory.
An estimated 250 fans braved the cold and slippery driving conditions to watch the Bears (3-21, 1-10 AE) suffer their ninth consecutive loss.
”Maine played hard and they stayed composed and they didn’t let us run away with it,” said Rizzotti, who doesn’t have the caliber ballclub that has made Hartford a perennial conference contender in recent years.
However, the improving Hawks (10-15, 7-4 AE) won their fourth straight. They scored 20 points as a result of 18 UMaine turnovers.
”I think our turnovers really disrupt our flow, pretty much the entire game,” Blodgett said. “Any time we had a run going, there was a turnover, one or two.”
Hartford hit nine 3-pointers overall and shot 46 percent from the floor to keep UMaine at arm’s length in the final 20 minutes. Rizzotti said the Hawks did a better job with shot selection.
The visitors racked up 20 assists on their 25 field goals thanks to their unselfishness and crisp ball movement against the Bears’ man-to-man defense.
”I thought that our guards were really focused on making sure we got great shots and didn’t settle,” Rizzotti said. “In the first half we were a little impatient because we got some good looks and, all of a sudden, everybody just wanted to get a quick look.”
The Hawks finally stretched their lead to double digits with a 12-2 spurt starting with 10:22 left.
Nikkia Smith opened the run with a 12-foot turnaround from the lane, then Jackie Smith drained a 3-pointer off an inbounds screen play. Alex Hall put in an offensive rebound, before UMaine’s Brittany Williams countered with a 19-foot jumper.
However, Ilicia Mathis canned a 3-pointer and followed with a 17-footer 49 seconds later to give Hartford a 54-40 advantage with 5:43 remaining.
”Second half we settled into our offense better, we got the shots that we wanted,” Rizzotti said.
Mathis led a balanced Hartford squad with 12 points, while Jackie Smith netted nine. Hall contributed eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
The Bears had hung around most of the game, getting within two at 27-24 on two Ashleigh Roberts foul shots 11 seconds into the second half. Daphne Elliott and Jackie Smith responded with 3-pointers 26 seconds apart to help Hartford repel the threat.
”We need to be able to get over that edge and be confident enough to get over that edge because that’s really the key, I think, is to believe that we can do it,” said redshirt freshman Amber Smith, who paced the Bears with a game-high 17 points and three steals.
Roberts registered 10 points and nine rebounds for the Bears. The Hawks made 13 turnovers, which led to 12 UMaine points.
UMaine shot only 29 percent (9-for-31) in the second half.
”I wanted to make sure that they understood that this was a good defensive win because of how much better (the Bears) are offensively at home,” Rizzotti said.
The Bears had averaged 56.3 points in AE home games and only 44.6 on the road.
UMaine is still without the services of junior forward Samantha Wheeler (postconcussion symptoms), redshirt freshman guard Rachele Burns of Gorham (knee surgery) and freshman forward Jaymie Druding (shoulder).
Blodgett said Druding has returned to practice.
The Bears were well within striking distance at halftime. They trailed on 27-22 in spite of committing 13 turnovers that led to 13 Hartford points.
The Hawks played decent man-to-man defense, although UMaine still shot 40 percent (10-for-25) from the field in the half.
The Hawks jumped in front with a 10-4 run that spanned nearly 6 1/2 minutes. UMaine shot itself in the proverbial foot by committing nine turnovers during a span of 8:11 that encompassed the run.