ORONO, Maine — All Ashleigh Roberts wanted was the chance to play basketball and make a difference. She received that opportunity at the University of Maine.
The 5-foot-9 guard from Wilmington, Del., never could have imagined the struggles she would face. The Black Bears posted a 16-72 record during her first three seasons.
“It’s definitely been trying,” Roberts said.
The senior has made an impact, employing a more disciplined approach this season that has helped coach Richard Barron’s team become a consistent winner.
Roberts hopes to demonstrate her growth Friday night at 8:15 when No. 4 UMaine (16-13) plays No. 5 Hartford (12-17) in the America East quarterfinals at SEFCU Arena in Albany, N.Y.
“If there’s ever a time to give literally everything that you have left, it would be now,” said Roberts, who is the team’s top scorer.
Roberts has compiled impressive numbers at UMaine. She is among 13 players in program history to register 1,000 points and 500 rebounds and needs only two points to pass Ashley Underwood (1,195) for ninth place on the career scoring list.
Roberts is enjoying her best season statistically, scoring 13.4 points per game (sixth in AE) on 48 percent shooting that ranks third in the league. She also is averaging 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
“Ashleigh has been the player on the top of our scouting report for the last three years,” said Maryland Baltimore County head coach Phil Stern. “She has always been a tough matchup for us because of her ability to go left and get to the basket. This year she added the 3-point shot to her game.”
Roberts’ resolve has never been in question. As a freshman, she led the team with 10.7 ppg and earned a spot on the America East All-Rookie Team.
Former coach Cindy Blodgett relied heavily on Roberts and her attacking style, but she committed 140 turnovers as the Black Bears went 4-24.
“We would be down by a lot in games and I would still keep going, trying to get just one more [basket],” Roberts said.
An undersized, all-state post player at Concord High School, she had always been the focal point of her team’s offense. The arrival of Barron and a new staff in 2011 meant an effort to help Roberts better implement her skills in a more disciplined, balanced offense.
Roberts often found herself without the ball, which left her out of sync, standing and waiting.
“You can’t score if the ball isn’t in your hands,” Roberts said.
“To me, it seemed like I was never going to be able to fit into this offense,” she admitted.
As a sophomore, Roberts was reluctant to change. She posted career lows in most statistical categories, including minutes played.
“She thought she was doing what she should do to help the team. It just wasn’t helping the team,” Barron said.
“It takes time and I think she trusts her coaches now,” he added.
Roberts said it was a long process to see how she fit into Barron’s system. In the meantime some had suggested she transfer.
“I just felt like that would make me such a punk, a quitter, to leave,” explained Roberts, who from the beginning wanted to be part of a program resurgence.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that I didn’t give up. I wanted to stick it out and honor the commitment that I made,” she said.
This season, Roberts has better managed her game and has played smarter basketball.
“Her scoring average hasn’t changed much, but her efficiency has,” Barron said. “When she’s making the right decisions on the offensive end in terms of her shot selection, she’s a formidable player in our league.”
Roberts said she still walks a tightrope in terms of recognizing when to try to score.
“I think the challenge for me has been choosing the right spots, but staying aggressive.”
Roberts’ teammates never doubted her commitment to helping the team.
“Now that we’re winning, people can really see Ash for who she is, which is a very unselfish teammate and a leader on our team,” said junior Courtney Anderson.
The confidence and leadership Roberts exudes has rubbed off on UMaine’s underclassmen.
“Coming in as a freshman, I looked up to Ash just because of her competitiveness and her self-awareness on the court,” said sophomore Liz Wood.
“The way she’s grown into her leadership role is something I look up to and something I aspire to in the future,” she added.
Roberts will graduate with a degree in financial economics and a minor in child development. She said her first love is working with children, including her five nieces.
Regardless of the Black Bears’ performance at the tournament, she will look back with a sense of accomplishment.
“Coming from where we were my freshman year to where we are now, if we weren’t to win another game this season I would be ecstatic with what we’ve done already to this point,” Roberts said. “I’m so proud of that and it can only get better.”