WEST HARTFORD, CONN. — Fans of the University of Maine women’s basketball program were looking for improvement this season under first-year coach Richard Barron.

After years of struggles under former coaches Ann McInerney and Cindy Blodgett, the Black Bears provided a glimmer of hope during 2011-12 that things are getting better.

UMaine posted an 8-23 record that doubled the number of wins from the previous campaign. The Bears closed out the season with a first-round victory at the America East tournament and an inspired performance in a quarterfinal loss to No. 1 Boston University.

Barron hopes this season will begin to change the perception of UMaine women’s basketball as a cellar-dweller, a once-mighty program that has fallen on hard times.

“I’m kind of tired of hearing about when Maine was good,” Barron said. “I know people mean it well and I appreciate the sentiment.”

“That’s not what I want to hear about,” he continued. “I want it to be now.”

While still a long way from title contention, UMaine demonstrated growth throughout the season and was playing its best basketball down the stretch. Led by senior co-captains Brittany Williams and Samantha Baranowski, the team exhibited cohesiveness on defense and better offensive chemistry and execution.

Williams (8.1 points per game) provided a speedy defensive presence with occasional bursts of scoring. Baranowski (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rebounds per game) developed into an all-conference forward with solid post scoring and rebounding.

“I give the seniors great credit for their resilience and their ability to consistently come in and work hard every day,” Barron said. “I include Sam Wheeler in that as much as I do Sam Baranowski and Brittany Williams.”

Wheeler, a former all-league performer, appeared in only eight games before a second concussion ended her career for good.

The Bears were severely challenged by their lack of experience. Junior Shareka Maner left the team for personal reasons after 12 games and sophomore center Ali Nalivaika missed the season after knee surgery, then wound up having another procedure after a setback last month.

Junior Amber Smith had a health issue that further hampered her efforts, which included fewer than eight minutes per game in 15 games. Classmate Rachele Burns of Gorham, slowed by four knee surgeries, saw limited action in eight contests.

Barron and his staff instead built around a trio of freshmen, all of whom were recruited by Blodgett, to begin establishing a foundation for the future.

Freshman point guard Courtney Anderson (4.7 ppg, 2.8 assists per game) started 25 games and averaged 28 minutes. The walk-on from Greene learned some tough lessons, but provided a spark. She had a career-best 13 points, all in the second half, in the season finale.

Post player Danielle Walczak was the most consistent newcomer. The lefty complemented Baranowski’s play, averaging 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds while making 16 starts.

Freshman swing player Becca Knight of Alfred (4.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), another left-handed shooter, also showed flashes of things to come while starting 22 games.

The other contributors of note usually came off the bench. Hard-charging sophomore guard Ashleigh Roberts (7.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) provided energy on offense, while junior center Corinne Wellington (4.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg) could be productive down low.

Barron praised his players for pulling together after inheriting a new coaching staff.

“They were all freshmen to me,” Barron said. “They were all learning a new coach, a new style, a new voice, a new system; even new expectations.”

Williams, for one, is confident the lessons learned and confidence acquired this season should help propel the Black Bears to more success next winter.

“I know that next season, for them, they’re going to look back at this and say, ‘hey, we gave a good effort.’ We can do this throughout our whole season if we keep it up, work hard,” Williams said after the season-ending loss to BU.

Plenty of challenges await the Bears. UMaine’s most glaring issues were turnovers (20.1 per game), inconsistent defense (61.7 ppg, .387 FG pct.) and lack of consistent perimeter shooting threats (.254).

Some of those difficulties should get ironed out through experience, while the influx of new players could significantly boost the team’s competitiveness.

Liz Wood, a 5-10 guard/forward at Liberty High School in Bealeton, Va., is averaging 20.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.4 steals, 5.0 assists and 1.5 blocked shots per game. She was named Virginia’s Region II Division 3 Player of the Year, helping her team go 25-1 heading into Saturday’s state tournament quarterfinal.

Wood is Liberty’s career leader in points, rebounds and assists.

Lauren Bodine, a 5-7 guard at duPont Manual High in Lousiville, Ky., is averaging 6.3 points, 1.2 steals and 1.0 assist. The Lady Crimsons (32-2) are the No. 2 team in Kentucky heading into Saturday’s 7th Region championship game against Assumption.

Brittany Wells is a 5-7 guard at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, Ind. Her team went 15-10 and lost in the sectional championship game. Her stats were not available.

Bottom line, the Bears should exhibit further progress in the form of wins next season.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...