ORONO, Maine — The University of Hartford women’s basketball team strode onto the court Tuesday night as the No. 25 team in the country.
The Hawks demonstrated the kind of defense that has helped catapult them to the top of America East and into the national picture.
Hartford’s tenacious defense limited the University of Maine to 24 percent shooting and forced several of the Black Bears’ 21 turnovers while stifling the hosts in a 59-32 victory at Alfond Arena.
“They’re just tough,” said UMaine coach Cindy Blodgett, whose team fell to 7-17 overall, 3-9 in league play.
“When you’ve got all five players playing defense that same way, it makes it very difficult to run your sets and run them smoothly,” she said. “The physicality that we’re talking about is very real. That’s what we aspire to get to.”
The Hawks, who earlier in the day achieved the program’s first national ranking in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, shook off a lackluster overall performance because of their commitment to defense.
Hartford gave up very few uncontested shots and hounded the Bears into repeated turnovers. The Hawks also capitalized on UMaine’s mistakes, scoring 29 points off turnovers.
“At least with us being sloppy offensively, we definitely did a great job of staying focused and getting stops,” said Hartford coach Rizzotti, whose team became the only team other than Vermont (most recently this season) to earn a top-25 ranking.
“I told them that it’s obviously a big deal and it’s thrilling, but in the whole scheme of what we’re trying to accomplish [winning a championship], it doesn’t really mean anything right now,” she added.
Hartford (21-3, 12-0 AE), which beat UMaine 76-39 on Jan. 18, won for the 14th straight game.
The Hawks opened the game with a 22-3 scoring run, putting the Bears in a hole from the outset, and led 32-17 at halftime.
UMaine was crippled by turnovers early and Hartford wound up converting some of the hosts’ 11 first-half turnovers into 15 points.
The Hawks got numerous open shots in transition and combined their inside punch with a strong perimeter presence.
“We played very well afterwards, the effort was there and everything, but those first five minutes just killed us,” said sophomore Samantha Wheeler, who paced UMaine with 12 points and six rebounds.
“They’re just a really good, hard-nosed defending team,” she said of Hartford.
Diana Delva led the Hawks with 15 points and nine rebounds. Mary Silvia posted 10 points and six rebounds and Ruthanne Doherty added 10 points and five boards.
Hartford shot 42 percent form the field and outscored UMaine 15-6 from the foul line. The Hawks outrebounded the Bears 41-33.
Kristin Baker of Bingham added five points for the Bears, while Katelyn Vanderhoff contributed four points, four rebounds, five steals and two assists.
Hartford committed 15 turnovers, but UMaine could convert them into only one point.
After going more than nine minutes without a field goal, the Bears finally put together some offense with a 10-3 spurt. Vanderhoff and Wheeler scored four points each during the run, which trimmed Hartford’s lead to 25-13 with 7:36 remaining in the half.
“We had a really bad stretch where we lost our focus, we turned the ball over and we didn’t rebound,” Rizzotti said, “and I definitely credit Maine for hanging in there, because a lot of teams down 20 that early in the game would just pack it in. They played hard and stayed tough.”
The Hawks eventually switched from man-to-man defense to a zone, which seemed to stymie UMaine’s offensive efforts the rest of the half.
The Bears intensified their own defensive efforts in their 1-2-2 matchup zone in the second half, which helped open the door for a 10-4 run. Wheeler’s driving runner and a later foul shot got UMaine within 40-27 with 9:41 left, but Hartford scored eight unanswered points and afforded the Bears only five points the rest of the way.
UMaine was without the services of senior guard Amanda Tewksbury, who sat out the second straight game with an undisclosed ailment.