BANGOR, Maine — If its opening game is any indication, the rebuilding process for the University of Maine women’s basketball team might not be quite as arduous as some people might have thought.
Coach Richard Barron’s youthful squad showed no signs of first-game jitters on Friday evening, riding a well-balanced performance to a 67-47 victory over Big Ten member Purdue in UMaine’s Tip-Off Tournament at the Cross Insurance Center.
“I told the team I wasn’t (shocked),” Barron said of a ballclub that lost eight seniors off last year’s team. “I’m pleased that it happened tonight, but I felt like it was going to happen.”
It was UMaine’s first win over a Big Ten team since a team coached by Sharon Versyp (2000-2005) beat Michigan in 2004. The Black Bears face No. 11 Mississippi State in Saturday’s 7 p.m. championship game.
Senior Sigi Koizar and junior transfer Tanesha Sutton provided the experience, while a versatile group of first-year players led by Spaniards Blanca Millan and Laia Sole started strong and maintained a high level of play throughout.
Koizar and Millan each scored a game-high 17 points, with Koizar contributing seven rebounds, four assists and a steal and Millan notching four steals, three assists and two rebounds.
Sole posted 14 points and Sutton contributed 12 points and eight rebounds for the Black Bears, who shot 48 percent from the floor (25-for-52) and made seven of 14 shots from the 3-point arc.
“They’re new to this, but they don’t play scared, they don’t play like freshmen, and it makes it a lot easier on the upperclassmen,” Koizar said.
UMaine set the defensive tone early, working mostly out of a 2-3 zone with some 1-2-2 pressure, and scored 24 points as the result of 17 Purdue turnovers.
Millan and Sole played with considerable poise and confidence despite making their collegiate debuts.
“(It was) more excitement than nervous,” Millan said. “We were a little bit nervous.”
“I think we were so, so excited for this game and we wanted to see all the fans enjoying the game and I think they did,” Sole said.
“We just played without fear and I think that’s why today we beat this team,” she added.
Dominique Oden paced the Boilermakers, coached by Versyp, with 11 points and Ashley Morrissette tossed in 10, while Dominique McBryde chipped in seven points and seven rebounds.
In addition to its turnover woes, Purdue shot only 31 percent (15-for-49), including 3-for-17 (18 percent) from the 3-point arc and 14-for-24 (58 percent) from the foul line.
“They just kicked our butts,” Versyp said of the first quarter, during which UMaine built a 25-6 lead.
“If you get out to a great start and you build that confidence, it just keeps going,” she added.
UMaine was able tiptoe around considerable foul trouble thanks in part to manufacturing a lead of 25 points midway through the third quarter.
The Black Bears built a 36-18 advantage behind a phenomenal first-quarter performance.
UMaine came out active on the defensive end, forcing several of Purdue’s 10 turnovers in the quarter. Millan was credited with three first-quarter steals as the hosts got out in transition and attacked the basket effectively.
“They came out, they set the tempo really early in terms of their defense and their aggressiveness,” Barron said.
“I felt a certain calm there on the sideline,” he added.
The Black Bears shot 54 percent from the field (14-for-26) in the half, while the Boilermakers appeared out of sync from the outset.
UMaine started quickly as a Koizar steal led to Sutton’s close-range basket and a steal and layup by Millan made it 4-0. Naira Caceres added a tip-in before Purdue got on the board with an Andreona Keys foul shot.
However, Koizar ignited an 11-0 burst with a driving layup and free throw, then stuck a 3-pointer after a turnover. Sole scored on a low-post move, then Millan made a steal and layup and closed out the conventional three-point play to put the Black Bears up 17-1 with 4:09 left in the quarter.
Barron said last Sunday’s scrimmage against Syracuse helped UMaine establish the level of physicality and intensity it would need in the tournament.
UMaine later extended its lead to 24 points after Millan snipped back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 31-7 with 5:04 left in the half.