The University of Maine women’s basketball team dropped its home opener Tuesday night with a 68-44 loss to Syracuse University at Alfond Arena. The Black Bears were able to keep things interesting in the first half and keep Syracuse on its toes, but UMaine shot a lowly 25 percent from the field in the second and allowed the Orange to pull away with 17 unanswered points over an 8-minute span to seal the win.
“That’s an NCAA Tournament team right there,” said UMaine head coach Richard Barron. “They’re very long and extraordinarily athletic. We needed to hit our perimeter shots and we didn’t. We missed open shots.”
UMaine was not fazed by the caliber of their opponent in the first as they were able to find offensive continuity early on with good perimeter ball movement and by taking advantage of Syracuse double teams. UMaine freshman forward Mikaela Gustafsson and sophomore guard Courtney Anderson hit an early pair of 3-pointers off such opportunities to help Maine gain a 12-10 advantage.
On the defensive side, the Black Bears effectively utilized help-side defense around the basket to keep 6-foot-4-inch junior center Kayla Alexander from dominating in the post. Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman applauded the effectiveness of the Black Bears defense on Alexander, a preseason All-Big East Conference selection.
“I give them a lot of credit for their scheming and game planning,” Hillsman said. “They didn’t let Kayla get easy catches inside. And even when we did, they set up double teams with different people, and we weren’t able to balance the floor or get the ball out from there.”
After UMaine freshman guard Sophie Weckstrom stuck a pull-up jumper to tie the game with 12 minutes left in the first, Syracuse went on a 15-4 run over the next 9 minutes to make it a 31-20 advantage for the Orange. The run was spurred by missed quick shots and turnovers by the Black Bear offense after breaking the Syracuse full-court pressure.
UMaine would stay resilient after the Syracuse run and grind out an 8-1 run of their own to close the half within striking distance at 32-28. Junior guard Ashleigh Roberts and freshman guard Brittany Wells came up with big scores during the run and senior forward Corinne Wellington provided a big block on the defensive end to spark the run and revitalize the team.
“We had great energy during that period,” Roberts said. “Our shots finally started to fall in that stretch, and the defense really buckled down.”
Syracuse came out in a man-to-man defense in the second half in an effort to limit UMaine’s perimeter game, which proved to be a difference-maker for the Orange. The change forced the Black Bears into quick shots or to the inside where Syracuse used their height advantage to grab rebounds and limit second chance opportunities.
“They were wide open in that first half, but they were just missing,” Hillsman said. “We just changed things up in the second half so that instead of just running around, we were able to guard them and stay in front more.”
“You can absolutely give them credit for their athleticism, but the real problem was we weren’t knocking down shots,” Barron said.
Barron was quick to point out that the ball movement was better in the second half with seven turnovers compared to the first period which produced 19 turnovers, but it simply came down to a lack of second chance opportunities and not getting to the free throw line.
While the Black Bears offense sputtered in the second half, Syracuse was able to create better offensive opportunities through their defensive momentum to break out for their 17 unanswered points late in the period. Alexander took control of the game in second half with 11 of her game-high 19 points in the second half to go along, and she used her height to keep the ball alive in the offensive end for Orange.
“My teammates were looking for me and found me inside a lot,” Alexander said. “I needed to do a better job finishing in the second half, and I was able to do that because of them.”
“Kayla is a good player who can take you, one on one, and get you deep and seal,” Hillsman added. “I put a lot of pressure on her, but she is a tough kid.”
While Alexander was dominant in the second half, UMaine freshman center Anna Heise thought a little more defensive effort on her part would have made a difference in preventing Alexander from breaking out.
“She’s a good player, but I could have done a lot better job in stopping her,” Heise said. “She missed a lot of open shots and got second chances. She can definitely be stopped.”
The Black Bears tried to make pushes toward getting back into the game, but it was too far out of reach: The Orange grabbed the momentum and ran with it.
“If our intensity lacks in a period of time like it did and you let them go on a 17-0 run then you can’t win games,” Anderson said.
“They weren’t 24 points better than us,” added Roberts.
The Black Bears got 10 points from Roberts, while Wells and Heise both added eight points apiece.
The outcome may not have been what the Black Bears were hoping for, but their play caught the attention of Hillsman who had nothing but praise for the young squad.
“I know from coaching overseas that it’s hard to get international players to play to your style and they are doing a heck of a job here,” Hillsman said. “They are doing an excellent job getting them in to play and getting them to play in a way they are capable of and comfortable with.”
Over the weekend, the Black Bears grabbed a 74-67 victory over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas at the Subway Classic in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Saturday. Roberts led the way for UMaine with 16 points, while sophomore forward Danielle Walczak added 14 points and freshman guard Liz Wood contributed 12 points. UMaine advanced to the championship game on Sunday where they fell 77-60 to the University of Minnesota. Roberts paced the Black Bears once again with 23 points and Heise chipped in 10 points of her own in the losing the effort.
Next up for the Black Bears, 1-4, is an weekend matinee with Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, Nov. 24 at 1 p.m.