ORONO, Maine — It has been seven years.
For the first time since January 2007, the University of Maine women’s basketball team has a .500 or better record at this point in the season.
UMaine hopes to take another step toward becoming a more consistent winner during Tuesday’s 7 p.m. America East contest against Vermont at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Coach Richard Barron’s Black Bears (8-8, 2-1 America East), who are reaping the benefits of more experience and increased confidence, face a UVM team (4-11, 1-1 America East) that has lost six straight games.
UMaine is demonstrating growth after having the youngest team in all of Division I last winter, one that included nine freshmen.
While putting only one senior and one junior on the court this winter, the Bears’ promising sophomore class has been a key component of the team’s success.
“I think maturity, that’s been a big part,” Barron said. “The kids learned a lot from last season.”
“Their work in the off-season was really important to the turnaround, not just in terms of skill development or physicality, but the mental approach, the competitive approach to the game,” Barron said.
The Bears’ third-year coach also said this group has not had the benefit of a winning culture or extensive upperclass leadership.
Ashleigh Roberts, the only healthy senior, has elevated her game to help set the tone for the squad.
Once known for her determination in driving to the basket, the 5-foot-9 guard is making better decisions. Roberts is averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting 51 percent (77-for-151) from the field, both of which rank third in the conference.
Roberts also is shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
“There’s a big improvement there,” Barron said. “Sometimes it’s not about doing more, it’s about doing less.”
That mentality is prevalent throughout the team, which has seen its shooting percentages rise with the help of better ball movement and shot selection.
Barron also has seen better consistency in the Bears’ rebounding effort.
UMaine has achieved considerable balance while utilizing its growing depth. Sophomore Liz Wood (12.0 ppg) leads the team in average rebounds (6.6), assists (3.5), steals (1.8) and in total blocked shots (8).
Classmate Lauren Bodine provides a spark with her 3-point presence, averaging 9.0 points behind an America East-best 47 percent (39-for-83) from behind the arc.
“She’s much more confident in her shot,” said Barron, who explained Bodine “takes care of the ball and is a great help defender.”
UMaine has received a boost from the addition of graduate student and point guard Cherrish Wallace (9.0 ppg, 3.7 apg). Freshman Sigi Koizar, sophomores Sophie Weckstrom, Anna Heise, Mikaela Gustafsson and Chantel Charles, and junior Courtney Anderson of Greene have been other key contributors.
Barron explained that UMaine’s continued growth will be predicated on the individual players’ ability to achieve improvement by applying lessons learned on the court at game speed.
“I think we have great confidence in our abilities as a team, great confidence in each other,” Barron said of the Bears’ unselfish play thus far. “It’s not a team where we’ve got to put everything on one person’s shoulders.”
Barron believes this team is starting to establish its identity. However, he is aware the process of re-establishing a winning culture will require more time, effort and experience as the Bears move into the thick of the America East schedule.
It comes down to the players’ ability to maintain their focus and performance on a consistent basis, game by game and play by play.
“Just because we’re close doesn’t mean we’ve arrived,” he said. “We’ve got to understand how important possessions are, that it’s not the last possession, it’s any possession throughout the game.”