ORONO, Maine — It was another season of setbacks and disappointment for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
It began with renewed optimism as second-year head coach Richard Barron brought in nine freshmen to blend into a small nucleus of veterans.
However, numerous injuries exacerbated the Black Bears’ lack of overall experience and top-level talent and the team struggled throughout the season.
The Feb. 26 bus crash in Massachusetts served as the final insult to injury, apparently rendering UMaine emotionally unable to continue into the postseason.
UMaine finished with a 4-24 overall record that is second only to Cindy Blodgett’s 2010-11 squad (4-25) on the list of the program’s worst. The Black Bears went 3-12 in America East play and finished in ninth (last) place.
Statistically, UMaine was the youngest team, in terms of experience, in Division I women’s basketball this season. It showed.
The lone senior, Corinne Wellington, was an inconsistent part-time starter and junior guard Ashleigh Roberts continued to refine her game. The other two sophomore returnees, forward Danielle Walczak and guard Courtney Anderson of Greene, demonstrated growth.
Walczak anchored a limited frontcourt group, averaging 10.4 points, shooting a team-best 48 percent from the field, and 5.5 rebounds. However, a nagging foot injury that required surgery ended her season with nine games remaining.
The hard-charging Roberts (10.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) remained the Bears’ most aggressive offensive player with her dribble-penetration abilities. She also was bothered by a knee injury, but appeared in 26 games, starting 20.
Anderson (7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) provided a spark at both ends and improved her assist-to-turnover ratio significantly (2.4 apg). She also finished as the top 3-point shooter at 36 percent (32-for-89).
Wellington (3.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg) came on as the season progressed, but also was lost to season-ending knee surgery.
Otherwise, the Bears relied on freshmen. The catalyst of the class was Liz Wood (10.3 ppg), the team leader in rebounds (6.6 rpg), assists (2.4 apg) and turnovers (2.9 tpg).
The versatile guard/forward, who led the team in minutes played (32.4 mpg), struggled to find her shooting touch early but was a rugged presence in the paint and on the boards. Wood is a difference-maker who will lead the team on the court during the next three years.
Anna Heise of Germany (5.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) was still transitioning to the American game before the 6-foot-3 forward sprained, then broke, her ankle and missed the final 16 contests.
Guard Lauren Bodine (4.5 ppg) gained momentum later in the season, demonstrating her 3-point shooting prowess by tying a school record with seven against Vermont. She also was a solid defender.
The rest of the newcomers contributed, but lacked consistency. They included forward Mikaela Gustafsson (3.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg), guard Sophie Weckstrom (3.4 ppg) and guard/forward Chantel Charles (2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg), each of whom played in 25 games, mostly coming off the bench.
Guards Brittany Wells (3.6 ppg) and Milica Mitrovic (2.0 ppg) had a few good moments, while Michal Assaf left the team when called to active military duty in Israel.
UMaine was without 6-4 center Ali Nalivaika, who underwent another knee surgery during the preseason.
The Bears played the last several games without a post player as Walczak, Wellington and Heise were all injured.
UMaine held its own offensively, ranking third in league play in scoring 58.1 ppg and fourth in field-goal percentage (.380). The Bears set a program record by attempting 560 3-pointers — the previous mark was 475 — but made only 150 (.268).
The Bears had problems on defense, ranking last in the conference in points allowed (68.6 ppg), FG percentage defense (.412) and 3-point FG percentage defense (.343).
With no frontcourt height and limited depth, UMaine was forced to play mostly zone defense later in the season, which made it more susceptible to 3-pointers.
The team had the opportunity to win several more games this winter, but let some chances slip away, especially early in the season, that surely crimped its collective confidence.
Assuming the Bears can overcome their numerous health problems during the offseason, the prognosis for next season is for significant improvement.
Anderson, Bodine and Wood need to provide a more reliable 3-point shooting presence, while all involved, including point guard Weckstrom, must cut down on the turnovers (19.3 per game) that so often hampered their efforts.
The biggest missing pieces of the puzzle are developing one or two consistent post players to complement Walczak. A healthy Nalivaika could help fill the void, while Heise and Gustafsson must learn to play with their backs to the basket to take advantage of their size.
Watch for Heise to become a force inside for the Bears, who could also bring in a junior college player to provide some instant experience up front.
Next season will be pivotal, both for Barron (whose teams have a two-year record of 12-27) and the program. UMaine should be able to flirt with a .500 overall record and re-introduce itself into the conversation as an America East contender, especially with Boston University leaving the conference and a handful of teams incurring significant graduation losses.
This group appeared to have good chemistry in spite of its on-court problems. The bus accident, though traumatic, also should serve to further cement the bond between those players who remain.