BANGOR, Maine — There was a time not too long ago that facing the University at Albany might have been a daunting prospect for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
And while the Black Bears have the utmost respect for the three-time defending America East champions, they are beginning to feel as though they’re very much in the same league as the Great Danes.
UMaine has discovered that a healthy dose of confidence can go a long way.
“This year we’re going into conference knowing that we can win it, and that’s what we’re in it for,” junior forward Anna Heise said after Friday’s practice at the Cross Insurance Center. “We’re not playing it to be average or win a couple of games, we’re playing to win the conference.”
Coach Richard Barron’s basketball team (8-4) plays UAlbany (7-6) and conference player of the year Shereesha Richards in its America East opener noon Saturday.
Barron concedes that his team has made strides, but he knows it has a long way to go.
“Albany, until somebody proves otherwise, is clearly the favorite,” he said, “but there are a lot of other teams that have the talent and have the personnel — whether it’s the leadership in terms of the coaching or the leadership in terms of the senior players — to give themselves a chance.”
However, for the first time in several years, the Black Bears may be in position to make a run at the conference title. A lot of it comes down to the players’ confidence level in addition to their development and experience.
“I think our mindset’s definitely changing,” said junior forward Liz Wood, who credits the coaching staff with helping make that happen over time.
UMaine has gone from wanting simply to stop losing, to working hard, to seeing consistent results in the win column. The Black Bears made huge strides last season but appear to have taken the next step during nonleague play.
“This year we’re beating teams with winning records, and we’re starting to realize, ‘hey, we’re a good team, we can beat these people, and we should beat these people,’” Wood said.
The most recent Rating Percentage Index (RPI) numbers released by the NCAA on Friday have UMaine at No. 89, which is believed to be its highest ranking since 2004-05.
Albany checks in at No. 112.
A six-game winning streak that spanned Nov. 29 through Dec. 13 helped build the Black Bears’ belief system. Now comes two months of conference play.
At the end of the rainbow for the America East champion is an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where UMaine has not been since 2005.
Barron’s aim is to keep the players focused on the short term.
“We’re not thinking about last year, we’re not thinking about last week,” he said. “We’re just trying to be ready to play [Saturday].”
Wood believes there is a happy medium in having some swagger without looking too far ahead.
“We really have a chance to win the conference championship, but we also have to stay healthy, we have to execute,” she said. “It’s not going to come easy. It’s exciting because it’s definitely possible, but we have to take care of what we need to take care of on the court to make it happen.”
UMaine hopes to begin its quest in earnest against UAlbany while shaking any rust that might have come from taking several days off during the holidays and not playing a game since Dec. 21.
“We’ve been thinking about this game for a long time now, so we’re ready to play it,” Barron said.
“We want to be at our best at the end of the season, so this is a measuring stick on where we need to go from here,” he said.