BALTIMORE — The collective confidence and resolve of the University of Maine women’s basketball team continues to be tested.
Three days before their America East Conference opener at Maryland Baltimore County, the Black Bears are searching for some positives around which they can build moving forward.
Coach Richard Barron’s team has entered uncharted territory, with a program-worst 1-12 start that includes nine straight losses.
It is a position neither Barron nor his players are enjoying, but must confront.
“It’s very important to make it clear to the team and everybody else that I signed on for this,” Barron said after Tuesday’s 72-47 loss at Virginia Commonwealth. “I want to help turn it around. I know I can’t do it myself, but I want to help them get there.”
Sophomore Courtney Anderson of Greene, the only Mainer on the team, admitted the Bears’ struggles take an emotional toll.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say it was tough mentally to be 1-12,” she said. “Nobody thought we’d have a start like this, but this is where we are.”
Barron said the team’s inexperience (he has nine freshmen and two sophomores on the roster) is hampering its ability to achieve more measurable progress.
Frequent failure and several lopsided results appear to be affecting the overall psyche of the Black Bears, in spite of their best efforts.
“It’s not because our kids are not working hard or not understanding the X’s and O’s, it’s [a lack of] confidence,” Barron said.
He explained that the players have been receptive to coaching and eager to do whatever is asked of them. They acknowledge mistakes, accept criticism and exert physical effort in the hope of getting better.
However, Barron said the mentality has to move to another level in terms of the players’ collective response to setbacks and adversity.
“We need to learn to play more aggressively,” he said. “Not just that, but with tenacity and fight and resolve.”
The UMaine staff has been working with the team with a variety of different approaches. Barron said sometimes it’s praise and encouragement, but other situations call for tough love.
It is a delicate balance between those aspects of coaching and teaching so many young players, whose performance is inhibited when they doubt their own ability.
“There are plays to be made by just being aggressive,” Barron said. “When the mindset’s right, the feet are moving, you’re quicker to the ball. When you’re playing timid or scared or intimidated, you’re going to be slower, hesitant, more cautious.”
Anderson said losing is difficult to erase from one’s mind. Rather than dwell on the mistakes, the players look for ways to build off them.
“Every day’s another chance to change it,” she said. “That’s what keeps us going. As athletes, and as a person, no one likes to lose and it’s hard, but I think it’s keeping us grounded.”
The coaches have tried to make things easier of late by implementing more scripted offensive plays, especially early in games. It has brought some positive results, but the Bears have not been as adept at making in-game adjustments.
UMaine also has been plagued by turnovers (22.2 per game).
UMaine has had ample opportunities to win more games this season. The Bears have suffered five losses by a combined 22 points, including four by five points or less.
One came in overtime, another at the buzzer.
For that reason, Barron believes that if his team can make a few big plays and win some close games, it will begin to develop some swagger.
“If we make some shots, maybe we’re a little more confident when we shoot the ball,” he said.
Barron’s hope is the early-season difficulties experienced by the Bears, including a tough travel schedule, will give his team some much-needed seasoning heading into conference play.
However, with only two upperclassmen to whom it can look for experience and leadership, this team needs its young players to step up quickly.
“The other thing that’s not clear to me is, is this a young team that’s waiting for the future or one that’s going to grasp the urgency of the situation?” Barron said.
UMaine has turned its focus toward Saturday’s conference opener at UMBC, which represents a clean slate of sorts.
“We’ve learned that we can’t flip a switch, but conference is a whole different ballgame than nonconference,” Anderson said. “We know we have to play well in conference.”