ORONO — The University of Maine women’s basketball team appears intent on using the Dead River Co. Classic to end some frustrating trends.
The Black Bears advanced to the championship game of their annual tournament for the first time in five years Friday, grinding out a 66-53 victory over Troy in the first round of the 19th Dead River Co. Classic at Alfond Arena.
Coach Richard Barron’s Black Bears (2-2) take on Brown, a 55-47 winner over Evansville on Friday, in Saturday’s 2 p.m. title contest.
“We still obviously have a lot of things to work on, but it’s nice that we get a chance to learn those lessons without losing,” Barron said. “It’s a very quick turnaround (for Saturday’s game).”
Troy (0-4) and Evansville (0-4) meet in Saturday’s noon consolation contest.
A UMaine team member also overcame a long period of frustration on Friday.
Senior forward Samantha Wheeler, who had been struggling with post-concussion symptoms, returned to action for the first time in almost a year.
“It felt great,” said the former All-America East second-team pick. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous before a game.”
UMaine beat Troy with its aggressive defense, determined rebounding and strong free-throw shooting.
The Bears committed 25 turnovers, in part because of the quick pace they created with their defense, but they also forced the Trojans into 29 turnovers.
UMaine came up with 16 steals, including three each by Brittany Williams and Ashleigh Roberts, and was able to minimize fouls (11).
“The big thing for us was the energy on defense,” Barron said. “We were very disruptive, especially early.”
“We did that without ever giving them a one-and-one foul,” he added. “I was very pleased with that, not fouling off the ball.”
Troy, which was without starting point guard Sophie Kleeman because of a foot injury, had trouble establishing much offensive continuity. However, the Trojans shot 58 percent from the floor in the second half.
Williams, a senior guard, scored a game-high 15 points and provided four assists and three steals to lead the Bears. Shareka Maner contributed 10 points and six rebounds, and Corinne Wellington posted 10 points in a balanced effort.
Freshman Becca Knight of Alfred chipped in with eight points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals, while Amber Dillon added eight points.
UMaine outrebounded Troy 41-30, pulling down 19 offensive boards.
“We wanted to focus on getting rebounds this game,” Knight said. “We got a lot today, which was good, but we didn’t get points off of it.”
Tenia Manuel paced Troy with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while DeAngela Sword provided 12 points.
The Bears first established a cushion with a 9-0 flurry that came during a span of 1:33 seconds late in the first half.
Maner got it started, hitting a short jump hook from the baseline off a feed from Dillon. Wellington followed after a Troy turnover, scoring from underneath off a crisp entry pass from Williams.
The Trojans then turned the ball over again, which led to a Williams 3-pointer off a penetrate-and-pitch pass from Dillon that gave UMaine a 21-12 lead with 4:06 left in the half.
“We’re going to face teams who are going to be all over us and pressure the ball a lot and we have to be able to maintain our composure and make good decisions,” Williams said.
UMaine expanded its advantage to 16 points in the second half. Maner’s three-point play, her close-range hoop off a Courtney Anderson steal and pass, and Anderson’s 3-pointer provided an 8-2 run that gave the Bears a 52-36 lead with 10:32 remaining.
Troy responded with a 12-2 surge that included two baskets by Jamesha Blake and fought back within six points at 54-48 with 7:16 to play, but UMaine was able to regroup and push its lead back to 10 before closing it out.
“We did not do a good job of taking care of the basketball. We got in a hurry,” said Troy coach Michael Murphy. “We gave up way too many offensive rebounds.”
Wheeler last played in the 2010 Dead River tourney, but suffered a concussion in practice on Nov. 29, 2010.
Once given the OK, she has gradually increased her practice participation and recently was cleared to return to game action. Wheeler logged 12 minutes and contributed two points, two rebounds and two steals.
“I definitely had a lot of jitters, but it was such a great feeling to finally be able to be back on the floor with my teammates again,” she said.