BANGOR, Maine — Fans of the University of Maine women’s basketball program have for several years been yearning for a team in which they can believe.
Finally, the Black Bears and their supporters are enjoying that winning feeling.
The most recent evidence supporting UMaine’s return to prominence was Sunday’s 63-45 victory over Hartford. It came in front of an announced crowd of 3,287 fans at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“Oh my gosh. There was like 3,000-something. Wow!” UMaine junior Liz Wood said after she increased her career point total to 1,006 with an 11-point effort.
Wood, who has become the face of the program with her success as a student-athlete, is enjoying the ride.
On Sunday, she signed autographs for young fans while doing the “Electric Slide” — UMaine’s official home victory dance — with teammates and supporters. Wood also was asked to pose for a photo after the game while holding a baby.
“We have little kids that are like, ‘Oh, you’re my favorite player,’ and see them after every game. That just makes you smile, makes it all worth it,” she said.
UMaine is undeniably on a roll. The team has registered nine consecutive victories and sit a half-game behind three-time defending champion Albany (17-7, 10-1 AE) in the conference standings.
The team continues to feed on the support it receives at home games, where UMaine is averaging a league-best attendance of 1,663 this season. The team is 11-2 on its home court, 5-1 in league play.
It is a dynamic that is not lost on opposing coaches such as Hartford’s Jen Rizzotti.
“We knew it was going to be a tough one, just because of the way they’ve been playing, not just in general but especially at home, shooting kind of lights out,” she said.
UMaine’s fan support and enthusiasm have surged since 2012 when Wood and this year’s junior class arrived on the Orono campus.
“ When we first came here, there [were] not a lot of people in the stands, and they didn’t really have a lot to be excited about, so I can’t blame them,” Wood said.
A couple of longtime fans at Sunday’s game commented that the “glory days” seem to have returned for the Black Bears.
Coach Richard Barron said his pregame speech to the team included an emphasis on giving the crowd its proverbial money’s worth.
“We talked about how we needed to validate the turnout, how important it was that we backed that up with a good performance,” he said.
The Black Bears also have been active around Greater Bangor, reading in schools, doing holiday charity work and simply interacting with fans.
UMaine’s win over Hartford was its second this season, but it was only the third in the past 22 meetings. The Black Bears beat the Hawks at home for the first time since 2004.
“That’s a while ago,” said junior guard Sophie Weckstrom, who was 11 years old at the time.
The Black Bears also recently cracked the Collegeinsider.com Women’s Mid-Major Top 25 at No. 24. The sampling includes teams that don’t play in the likes of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and such.
While there are six regular-season games for the Black Bears before the America East tournament gets under way on March 7 in Vestal, New York, evidence points to a potential championship run for Barron’s team.
“I think we’re coming together as a team each and every day in practice, and we just try to bring that to the games,” Weckstrom said.
“This whole season we’ve been talking about that March is when we want to be our best,” she said.