ORONO, Maine — Nobody would have blamed the University of Maine women’s basketball team if it had opted not to play.
Still dealing with the physical pain and emotional trauma inflicted by Tuesday night’s bus crash in Massachusetts, the Black Bears were conflicted, individually and collectively, about taking the court again.
“We had to sit down and have a real heart-to-heart conversation about it,” said UMaine sophomore Courtney Anderson of Greene. “That decision was actually harder than going out and playing the game, for some people.”
On Saturday afternoon, UMaine escaped its horrific ordeal, if only for a couple of hours.
Coach Richard Barron’s team ended the regular season with a 86-63 loss to the University of New Hampshire at Memorial Gym. The outcome was irrelevant.
“During that whole game, I didn’t think about the bus crash once,” said freshman Liz Wood. “It kept the mind off that.”
On Friday, UMaine had at first informed UNH it would not play the game. In the wake of counseling sessions, soul-searching and discussion with UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott and Senior Woman Administrator Eilleen Flaherty, the team decided it wanted to play.
“We really said that we didn’t want our season to end with the bus crash,” Wood said.
“It didn’t sound like a good idea to any of us,” Anderson chimed in.
Barron explained he had removed himself Friday from a team meeting, during which members contemplated how to proceed, so as not to influence their decision.
“I was surprised that we played the game, to be honest with you,” Barron admitted. “I didn’t think it was in our best interest to play.”
Ultimately, the Wildcats (11-17, 6-10 AE) took advantage of their frontcourt height and overall depth, pulling away late to beat UMaine (4-24, 3-12 AE).
The Bears used six of the eight players who dressed for the contest and appeared to experience frequent ebbs and flows of energy.
Playing a game on campus was one thing, but it may have been UMaine’s final appearance of the season.
The Black Bears are the No. 8 seed and are scheduled to play No. 1 Albany in the America East Championship, which begins Friday in Albany, N.Y.
Barron doesn’t think his team is likely to make the trip.
“I’m doubtful that this is a group that’s going to go get on a bus right now,” he said. “We’ve got people who break down in tears just when they see the ‘BAT’ system [bus] go through campus.”
Barron said the decision whether to go to Albany will be made by team members.
“I can tell you right now that there’s some people that we could absolutely not expect to make that trip,” he said. “They’re just not ready for it.”
Barron said an additional source of motivation to play Saturday was the fact it was “Senior Day.” Corinne Wellington, Amber Smith and Rachele Burns were recognized before the game for their contributions.
The game featured a balanced effort by UNH. Kelsey Hogan paced the Wildcats with 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Cari Reed tossed in 18 points, while Morgan Frame of Waterville (6 rebounds) and Ariel Gaston netted 10 points each.
The Wildcats outrebounded the Black Bears 55-34 in a solid performance.
“I wouldn’t have wanted them to come in here and take it easy on us,” said junior Ashleigh Roberts.
UMaine was led by freshman guard Lauren Bodine, who connected for four 3-pointers en route to 18 points. Roberts contributed 14 points and seven rebounds, Wood posted 13 points and five rebounds and Anderson added 10 points and three assists.
“They gave one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen from a team, coming off what they’ve come from,” UNH associate head coach Mike Roux said of the Bears. “They never quit and it was really fun to watch from a coaching perspective.”
As has been the case in dealing with the physical and emotional trauma in the aftermath of the crash, the UMaine players’ reactions to playing a game were varied.
Roberts called it “emotional,” while Wood said, “It’s been a roller coaster.”
Anderson described the game as “overwhelming,” while Bodine referred to the experience as “up and down” emotionally.
The Black Bears trailed by only eight points (42-34) at halftime despite a lethargic half during which they seemed to gain momentum.
However, the Wildcats rattled off nine unanswered points, including a pair of offensive rebound hoops by Frame, to make it 51-36 less than three minutes into the second half.
Anderson later converted a conventional three-point play and buried a 3-pointer off a Sophie Weckstrom feed to get UMaine within seven at 53-46 with 13:27 left, but the Wildcats responded with an 11-1 burst that gave them some breathing room.
“I am proud of them. I’m proud of the effort they gave,” Barron said.
A supportive crowd of several hundred fans gave the team a standing ovation as the clock wound down.
The Black Bears exchanged long hugs after the game, then greeted many of the fans who had been seated on the floor as the UMaine pep band played the “Stein Song.”
“For people to really reach out to us and show how concerned they are and glad they are that we made it out alive, that means a lot to us,” Roberts said.