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Monday, Nov. 24, 11:36 a.m.
Sports

Defense paces Black Bears over New Brunswick

It was a tale of two halves for the UMaine women’s basketball team in their exhibition game against New Brunswick University on Thursday night at Alfond Arena. After falling behind 33-29 at half time, the Black Bears came out of the locker room and went on a 26-0 run over the first 11 minutes of the second half. UMaine would not look back after that as they would go on to a 71-46 victory.

“New Brunswick definitely looked like the more seasoned team in the first half, but our talent showed and our intensity picked up in the second half which proved to be the difference,” said UMaine head coach Richard Barron.

First game jitters definitely played a factor in the opening minutes for the Black Bears as the first unit found difficulty in working the ball into the post and finishing around the basket. The ball movement around the perimeter was crisp, but the movement milked the shot clock and forced UMaine into throwing up quick and questionable shots.

“We were slow bringing the ball up and not really running any of our reads or counters early on,” Barron said. “And then we weren’t making our bunnies to go along with that, which just makes the basket look smaller and smaller with each miss.”

The second unit for the Black Bears would come on and really get the ball rolling on the offensive side by taking advantage of screens on and off the ball. Freshman guard Sophie Weckstrom was a beneficiary of those screens, as she picked up four quick points and helped UMaine get out to a 13-7 lead.

While the offense slowly found a sense of continuity, the defense stumbled throughout the first half. Defense was a secondary focus for the team in the preseason and it was especially noticeable in the transition defense on breaks. The lack of transition defense hurt the team as turnovers turned into New Brunswick points and led to a 22-22 tie with 6 minutes left in the half.

Barron noted that his substitution patterns may have been a factor in the Black Bears’ ability to put together a balanced attack on both ends of the floor.

“We tried to give everybody a lot of playing time so the flow may not have been what it could have,” he said. “You may have somebody that’s just getting into a rhythm after 4 minutes and then we are taking them out. I’m not sure if that necessarily helped the learning curve.”

New Brunswick would again capitalize on turnovers and defensive lapses at the end of the first to grab a 33-29 lead. The Black Bears looked like a deflated bunch going into the locker room and needed to regroup quickly to right the ship.

Barron was aware of the nerves and anxiousness the players may have playing in the first game, but it was something they would need to overcome.

“It isn’t a show where you have jitters on opening night and you have understudies waiting in the wings to try and knock you off the stage,” Barron quipped. “You got to come ready to compete and we needed to be a little bit more focused on the opponent from the start.”

“We’re a young team and the older players wanted to calm our nerves and get us focused, while coach pointed out that we needed to step up the defensive effort and transition better,” freshman guard Chantel Charles said.

Charles followed the words of her coach and teammates and led the charge in the early minutes of the second half. After freshman center Anna Heise tied the game with four quick points to open the half, Charles picked up three quick steals in a 2-minute span that resulted in six more points to give UMaine a 39-33 lead.

“After I got the first steal, the bench and the crowd really got behind me and I was feeling the energy,” Charles said.

“There is no question Chantel gave us a big spark there,” Barron said of the freshman guard. “I think everybody kind of fed off that energy when she made those defensive plays.”

The defense of Charles became infectious to the rest of the team, as the Black Bears would not allow New Brunswick to score again for the first 11 minutes of the half. Barron deemed the opening four minutes of the second as “the best 4 minutes of basketball” he had seen thus far in his time coaching at UMaine.

“There was a better defensive intensity in the second half, but especially in those first 4 minutes,” Barron said. “That led to scoring opportunities and allowed our offense to flow while turning the tempo and pace in our favor.”

The UMaine defense held New Brunswick to just 13 points and forced 26 turnovers in the second half.

The Black Bear offense developed a balanced attack and maintained its continuity throughout the second half. Heise led all scorers with 18 points, 10 of those coming in the second half. Charles added nine points and six steals, while freshman guard Lauren Bodine chipped in eight points off the bench.

Heise made a good first impression in her first game on U.S. soil, but she noted that her teammates made it easy on her.

“I didn’t really do anything special tonight,” Heise said. “My teammates just gave me great passes and I picked up easy layups, so it was a team effort really.”

Though they won the game, the bigger victory for UMaine was to get the first game out of the way. For players like Heise and Charles, having some experience will only improve their games from this point forward.

“We were pretty excited to get out here and play in front of the home crowd and in such a big arena,” Heise said.

While the win had its encouraging points, Barron by no means believes this is as good as it is going to get for his girls.

“We obviously had a lot of fun, but the bigger concern for me is sustaining our energy,” he said. “We have to be able to start games like we did in the second half and maintain it throughout the game instead of the sporadic production.”

UMaine will travel to Raleigh, NC for a pair of games against Auburn on Nov. 9 and an undetermined opponent on Nov. 10. The Black Bears return home to Alfond Arena to face Syracuse University Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.