Five years ago this month, the University of Maine women’s basketball program was in a dark place.
On March 29, 2011, the team was coming off a 4-win season and dismissed head coach Cindy Blodgett, who had arguably been the face of basketball in Maine as a Black Bear superstar. Soon after, Richard Barron was hired, armed with the task of revitalizing this once-proud program.
Barron did that and then some, as the team improved year after year to the point where Maine reached the America East championship game for the first time since 2004.
The Black Bears came within a point of being included in your March Madness women’s basketball bracket, falling to Albany 59-58.
In spite of the loss, this is a program that has a lot to be proud of.
As I’ve touched on with men’s hockey, rebuilding in college sports takes time and patience. Barron needed time to get his recruits into his system, and a talented senior class led by Liz Wood departs Orono having turned the Black Bears back into America East contenders. The team overcame a horrific bus crash on Interstate 95 in Massachusetts en route to a game at Boston University in 2013.
It came very close to paying dividends on Friday in New York’s state capital. For a better part of the game, I thought the Black Bears were the better team, especially with Wood on the court. But as can be the case sometimes in championship games, foul trouble and one player rising above the rest can be the difference, and that proved to be the case.
Albany’s Shereesha Richards scored 31 of her team’s 59 points. Wood, whose outstanding interior defensive play forced Albany into jump shots while she was on the floor, fouled out late in the fourth quarter. That was one of my X-factors heading into the game. It’s very tough to win a tightly officiated game in somebody else’s building. Despite that, Maine had a chance to win, with Mikaela Gustafsson missing a shot at the buzzer
We’ve all experienced heartbreak when it comes to sports, but this group of Black Bears should be extremely proud of the way they revitalized the program. Maine has one of the best home-court advantages in America East at the Cross Insurance Center, where the Bears did not lose a game this season, including a win over Clemson of the ACC.
The season is not over for Maine, as the Black Bears await their opponent in the WNIT, so Barron and his outstanding senior class will have at least one more game together.
Fans of the men’s hockey program who are heading toward the ledge after an 8-win season only need to look at UMaine women’s basketball as an example of what happens when you stay the course in a rebuild. This program is in a position to be an America East contender for years and years to come. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that women’s basketball compiled a 4-24 record.
PATRIOTS FANS NEED TO R-E-L-A-X
I know, I know, I’m turning into Aaron Rodgers here, but typically the start of the NFL free-agency barrage usually sets off unneeded panic among New England Patriots fans.
Within the first 24 hours, the Jets and the Texans had made the biggest splashes, with New York signing running back Matt Forte, whom the Patriots were rumored to be in the running for, while quarterback Brock Osweiler sent many Broncos fans to the ledge by signing with Houston, leaving the Super Bowl champions without a starting quarterback after the retirement of some guy named Peyton Manning.
Naturally, Patriots fans sat waiting impatiently for the team to make a move. They did late last week in agreeing to a 3-year deal with ex-Buffalo wide receiver Chris Hogan, giving the Pats much-needed wide receiver depth behind Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Hogan will likely occupy the spot vacated by released wideout Brandon LaFell.
The weekend did not see any other free agents come to terms with the Patriots, but winning the offseason almost never equates to hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. Heck, I even saw a Facebook post hinting that New England should signed deposed Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. I tried not to laugh, given Manziel has serious problems not even Bill Belichick could rectify.
The panic extended into Monday morning after it was learned defensive tackle Akiem Hicks signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bears. Hicks only recorded 26 tackles between time with the Saints and the Patriots last year, so he’s not exactly Vince Wilfork.
Missing out on Forte is no big deal. The Patriots will be fine at the tailback position with Dion Lewis healthy, and they could still re-sign Legarrette Blount. The team still needs a deep threat, but there will be plenty of options available in the draft, and this Notre Dame fan hopes New England can somehow snatch Will Fuller. The dynamic Fuller played in a spread offense under Brian Kelly in South Bend, and is big, physical and fast. He’d fit in perfectly in New England.
Pats fans, just relax and enjoy the ride. Let teams like the Jets and Texans win the off-season. There’s a reason why Belichick has led the Patriots to four championships since the turn of the century. In Bill We Trust!
BRUINS FINALLY FINDING CONSISTENCY
Who the heck are these Boston Bruins?
If you would’ve told me last fall that the Bruins would be in first place in the Atlantic Division all by themselves while I was filling out my March Madness brackets, I’d have thought you were crazy.
Coach Claude Julien’s team took care of business on its Florida road trip last week, beating the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning before beating Bangor native Jack Capuano’s New York Islanders at home on Saturday, and will head on a West Coast swing one point up on Tampa Bay and Florida.
The only catch is, both the Panthers and Bolts have two games in hand on Boston, which faces one of the toughest road trips in the NHL this week with games at San Jose on Tuesday before arguably the toughest back to back in the league, at Anaheim on Friday and at Los Angeles the next night.
Six points are out there for the Bruins. If they can head back East with at least three or four, than that is certainly a successful road trip.
With fourth-place Detroit currently seven points back of Boston, it’s clear this will be a three-team race for the division crown between Boston, Florida and Tampa Bay. Such is the case in any sport, winning your division gives you a huge advantage in the postseason. It’ll also mean the Bruins would not have to face Washington, the clear-cut Eastern Conference favorite, until the conference finals.
If Tuukka Rask can get hot and stay hot between the pipes, this is a dangerous team come playoff time.