ORONO, Maine — Displeased with how his team was getting pushed around, Richard Barron called a timeout.
Among his empassioned comments during the December game in Florida, the University of Maine coach singled out Samantha Baranowski and called her “soft.”
The quiet senior, who had that word thrown in her face often by former coach Cindy Blodgett, refused to let it go.
“I finally just said, ‘no, I’m not soft,’” recalled Baranowski, who downplayed the moment but admitted she had often accepted criticism with resignation.
Barron views it as indicative of the fortitude and resolve Baranowski has exhibited ever since.
“That was kind of a turning point for her, because she realized she didn’t want to be that [soft] any more,” he said. “She didn’t want to be characterized that way.”
The tri-captain emerged as UMaine’s top scorer and rebounder and leads the eighth-seeded Black Bears (7-22) into Thursday’s 6:05 p.m. first-round game against No. 9 Stony Brook (4-25) in the first round of the America East tournament at West Hartford, Conn.
“Her play dramatically improved,” Barron said. “Her scoring and rebounding production went up in the second half of the season.”
Baranowski, a 6-foot-3-inch forward, ranks 12th in conference play in scoring (11.2 points per game) and rebounding (6.5 rpg) and is second in field-goal percentage at .488 (63-for-129). She has re-established some of the swagger that made her a standout at Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope, N.J.
“I just developed better confidence in myself, I guess,” said Baranowski, who is averaging a team-leading 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds overall.
That self-confidence had been damaged during her first three seasons at UMaine.
“Soft, that’s my least favorite word,” said Baranowski, a rangy forward known more for her finesse and shooting than her power game inside.
Baranowski reached the point where she knew she had to exhibit more more aggressiveness and confidence.
“I felt like she was underperforming and that a lot of that had to do with her own kind of self-image and expectations,” Barron said.
Baranowski admitted she has experienced her share of struggles at UMaine, but Barron said one of her endearing qualities is that she owns up to her mistakes and works to correct them.
Baranowski has made significant improvements in virtually all statistical areas, with the exception of free-throw percentage and turnovers.
Last season, she was finally learning how to work psychologically around constant losing and negativity. But mistakes often led to being her pulled from games and led to her playing tentatively.
Baranowski welcomed the coaching change, but getting acclimated to a new system and the expectations of Barron and his staff wasn’t easy.
“It was hard at first trying to adjust to learning everything again,” she said.
Yet there was a different dynamic in how Baranowski was treated when she didn’t execute as expected.
“Seeing coach Barron and the rest of the coaching staff support me through my mistakes, that just gave me the confidence to play better, to be more successful,” Baranowski said.
She characterized the dynamic as being pushed to succeed, but in a constructive fashion that enabled her to work through tough times.
“The reason we challenge her is because we believe she’s capable,” Barron said.
“There’s an intensity that the game demands and we think the coaching demands, too,” he added. “I don’t think that Sam would have benefited from being, for lack of a better word, coddled.”
Baranowksi said she made a big stride at the Navy tournament in December. There, she scored back-to-back baskets and rediscovered a spark that had been missing.
“I hadn’t had that feeling in a while, like, ‘OK, that’s how it can be,’” she said. “I think it was from that moment, something just clicked.”
Baranowski’s personality may have held her back. Although she’s competitive on the court, trading elbows with a physical opponent in the paint isn’t in her nature.
“I think that’s a challenge for her, to kind of step out of character when she’s on the court and not be the soft-spoken, gentle person that she is off the court,” Barron said.
There have been numerous struggles for Baranowski and the UMaine program during her four seasons. Ultimately, it’s not the winning or losing she’ll take with her.
“It’s definitely been frustrating at times,” she said. “Obviously, I haven’t experienced much quantitative success in terms of wins, but I feel like I’m proud of what I’ve learned over the last four years that’s shaped me into a more mature person.”
Baranowski, who graduates in May with a degree in international affairs, hopes to have the chance to play pro ball before joining the work force.
First, she is intent on helping UMaine end its string of first-round tourney exits on Thursday.
“We beat them [Stony Brook] twice, but it’s kind of dangerous in a way,” she said. “They’re extra hungry and we don’t want to have any complacency about our attitude. I’m just looking forward to getting out of the play-in game, getting to the [quarterfinals].”