There was no storybook ending, but the 2014-15 season marked a bright chapter in the resurgence of the University of Maine women’s basketball team.

The Black Bears, who were knocked out of the America East tournament in the semifinals by Hartford, closed out the campaign on Friday with a 71-60 loss to Villanova in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Even though coach Richard Barron’s team lost three of its last four games on the heels of an impressive 14-game win streak, the Black Bears took another step toward relevance.

UMaine re-established itself as an America East power for the first time in a decade, racking up 23 victories while winning the regular-season title. The Black Bears built their 23-9 record, the program’s best since 2004-05, around much-improved defense, a balanced offensive attack and a versatile lineup that featured excellent depth.

UMaine became proficient playing its 2-3 matchup zone and mixed in some player-to-player defense. It ranked 15th in the nation in scoring defense (54.5 points per game).

The Black Bears held opponents under 60 points 24 times, including 10 straight in one stretch. However, they were only 2-6 when allowing more than 60 points.

UMaine’s matchup zone, which was susceptible to 3-pointers (opponents shot 33 percent), was less effective down the stretch.

Junior Liz Wood led the defense and was rewarded, joining Albany’s Shereesha Richards as the league co-defensive player of the year. The Black Bears ranked second in America East, holding foes to 39 percent shooting.

UMaine received a defensive boost from junior transfer Bella Swan and junior Mikaela Gustafsson became more of a presence in the paint.

The Black Bears were last in the league with 32.1 rebounds per game, a function of their perimeter-based, 3-point oriented offense.

UMaine’s continued improvement was derived from its experience with a nine-player rotation that featured lone senior Courtney Anderson of Greene along with seven juniors and a sophomore.

Wood was the emotional leader, averaging 13.8 points while leading the team in rebounds (7.7), assists (3.4) and steals (2.7). She was joined as an all-conference first-team selection by Sigi Koizar.

The sophomore guard elevated her offensive play and finished as UMaine’s top scorer (14.3 points per game) and free-throw shooter (76.9 percent). Koizar also averaged 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals.

Junior guard Sophie Weckstrom (7.5 ppg) led the club with 48 3-pointers, joining Wood and Koizar as the best perimeter threats. Anderson often provided a spark off the bench.

One notable area of growth came in the development of junior forwards Gustafsson and Anna Heise. Gustafsson worked hard on her post game and averaged 5.8 points and 2.4 rebounds. Heise, who was finally healthy, posted 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds and shot a team-high 53 percent from the field.

Swan (3.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) provided defensive and rebounding energy, junior Chantel Charles (3.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg) was a defensive presence, and junior Lauren Bodine (3.0), though slowed by leg injuries, was a 3-point threat.

Freshman guard Christiana Gerosteriou was a 40 percent 3-point shooter in limited action, while sophomore forward Sheraton Jones, freshman guard Parise Rossignol of Van Buren, junior guard Milica Mitrovic and freshman post Kirsten Johnson played sparingly.

Looking ahead, UMaine will be one of the most veteran teams in the country and has the potential to be a dominant ballclub.

Defensively, further work in the matchup zone might help UMaine better contest 3-point shots. The Black Bears should have enough depth to maintain high intensity when they decide to go player to player or press.

UMaine needs to improve its offensive efficiency. A starting point would be demanding a more aggressive approach from Koizar.

If Koizar attacks more often off the dribble, Wood will find herself open in the lane and UMaine’s 3-point threats should find more shooting room. Gustafsson also can become a dominating force inside.

An inside focus should help UMaine get to the foul line more often and reduce its reliance on 3-pointers. The 3-pointers would remain an integral part of the framework, one in which Bodine should play an increased role.

UMaine could benefit from attacking more in transition, where Koizar, Wood, Weckstrom and Charles excel when forcing the action.

With eight seniors, others gunning for minutes and freshmen Aida Santana and Maddy McVicar of Calais in the mix, the biggest challenge for Barron and his staff next season may be finding the most productive personnel rotations.

The talent will be there. The question is, can the Black Bears demonstrate the cohesiveness, determination and grit to become a champion?

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...