The 2010-11 season was expected to be one of significant improvement for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
Instead, the Black Bears failed to slow the team’s recent slide and posted the worst record in program history (4-25).
Coach Cindy Blodgett’s team lacked defensive cohesiveness, exhibited poor passing and decision-making skills, and found limited offensive consistency.
The result was a 2-14 America East mark and last place in the standings. The Bears lost in the tournament play-in game for the fourth straight year.
UMaine’s woes stemmed from two key factors, the inexperience of the players logging most of the minutes and the lack of production from its upperclassmen.
The Bears’ prospects were dashed by the injury to junior all-conference forward Samantha Wheeler.
Wheeler appeared in only five games (averaging 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds) before suffering a concussion during a November practice. Postconcussion symptoms sidelined her for the rest of the season, robbing UMaine of its top scorer, most aggressive rebounder and most versatile defender.
UMaine played its 1-2-2 matchup zone and man-to-man defenses, but its young guards were often unable to contain opponents. The post players were hampered by a lack of quickness and physicality.
In league play, UMaine allowed 65.8 points per game on 38 percent shooting and was routinely outrebounded.
It also struggled mightily with the ball. The Bears ranked next-to-last in America East with 19.4 turnovers per game, which afforded opponents numerous extra chances to score and limited their own opportunities.
UMaine’s turnover margin (minus-4.79) ranked 316th among 333 Division I teams. Underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) accounted for 71 percent of the turnovers.
Freshman AE all-rookie choice Ashleigh Roberts often directed the offense. The hard-charging guard led the Bears in scoring (10.7 ppg) and was a 73 percent free-throw shooter, but also accounted for nearly one-quarter of the team’s turnovers.
Sophomore Katelyn Vanderhoff, who again was often forced to play out of position at the point, had a team-high 88 assists while averaging 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds, but proved turnover-prone.
Redshirt freshman swing player Amber Smith (10.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 814 FT pct.) was a key offrensive threat, while junior Brittany Williams (3.9 ppg), was the defensive catalyst. Both struggled with turnovers.
Tanna Ross of Newburgh, the only senior, averaged 6.9 points and was the only guard able to keep her turnovers in check.
The guard corps shot poorly overall, contributing to a .348 overall field-goal percentage that ranked last in the league and No. 310 in the country. UMaine also shot only 30 percent on 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, UMaine’s post game languished. Junior Samantha Baranowski (3.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and redshirt sophomore Corinne Wellington (5.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) were inconsistent and in and out of the lineup.
That left freshmen Ali Nalivaika (4.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.5 blocks per game), Jaymie Druding (2.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg), Greer Babbe and redshirt freshman Shareka Maner to pick up the slack.
None emerged as a standout, but Nalivaika demonstrated shot-blocking skills and a soft shooting touch while Druding, who was hampered by injuries, was a physical presence.
UMaine also lost redshirt freshman point guard Rachele Burns of Gorham to a knee injury after five games, and junior transfer Sheay Longstaff left the program after the fall semester.
The Bears’ underclassmen accounted for 66 percent of the total minutes played and provided 71 percent of the scoring and 60 percent of the rebounding. That experience should pay dividends next season, especially if Wheeler returns to the lineup 100 percent healthy.
With Wheeler as the inspirational leader on the court, opponents will have to account for her in all areas. That should help open up Smith for more open perimeter shots and give Roberts, Vanderhoff and Williams more room to operate.
All involved must improve their ballhandling, passing and decision-making. The arrival of point guard Kelsey Mattice and shooting guard Becca Knight of McAuley High in Portland should bolster UMaine’s talent and depth.
Burns’ health and availability are unknown.
There is plenty of room for growth in the frontcourt, where Baranowski, Druding and Nalivaika are the key returnees. Improving agility and strength should be a priority for all.
That group should be bolstered by the addition of 6-foot-1 freshman Danielle Walczak of Durham, N.H., although she reportedly suffered a broken leg in a recent playoff game.
Guard Courtney Anderson of Class B state champion Leavitt of Turner Center also will join the program.
The Bears must adopt the mantra of working smarter, rather than harder. The guards must improve their defense and be able to create shots off the dribble.
UMaine, which ranked first in the league with a .743 free-throw percentage, needs to force the action and get to the line more often.
The post players must get stronger, perfect back-to-the-basket skills and learn to remain poised after they receive an entry pass.
There is no substitute for experience and next year’s squad should have enough, with the influx of newcomers, to again be competitive in America East.