ORONO, Maine — Mikaela Gustafsson grew up in Sweden playing a European style of basketball. Even though she stands 6-foot-2, she didn’t spend much time inside.

“In Europe, we try to play ‘pretty’ basketball, that’s how I would describe it,” Gustafsson said in trying to compare her experience to basketball in the United States. “The post players are very skilled, but it’s not as physical or as fast-paced.”

Gustafsson wasn’t even the tallest player on her Swedish club team, which featured the likes of 6-5 Amanda Zahui, who now plays for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. That meant she spent much of her time on the wing.

“I was more comfortable playing on the perimeter,” Gustafsson said. “I wasn’t really considered a [center].”

During four years at the University of Maine, Gustafsson has diversified her game. On Friday night, the senior will provide the Black Bears with a stout and versatile post presence when they take on Quinnipiac in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

“She can score inside, she can shoot from outside, she passes well, can create some shots for other people, and she’s improved her defense a lot,” said UMaine head coach Richard Barron.

Gustafsson has proven a good complement to undersized UMaine all-conference forward Liz Wood while putting together a notable senior season. She has registered career-high averages of 8.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists while logging 29 minutes per game.

Gustafsson is happy that she was able to boost her production.

“I think being a senior there’s a lot of responsibility there,” she said.

“In the middle of the season, coach Barron and [associate head] coach [Todd] Steelman really encouraged me to start working more on my shot and to shoot with more confidence,” she said.

It has been a process for Gustafsson to develop her skills as an inside player. When she arrived at UMaine, she was grouped with the posts for practice drills that divided the guards and the forwards.

Even though the Black Bears played more of a four-guard style much of the time, they needed some interior punch. She admitted being resistant to such a move initially.

“She had the skills as a post player when she got here, but I think she saw herself differently,” said Steelman, who works with UMaine’s posts. “It took a little time for her to realize that that’s where she could be the most effective for our team.”

Gustafsson’s statistics point to the transformation of her game. She attempted 41 3-pointers as a freshman but has taken only 35 since, including three this season. She also has shot a career-high 69 free throws as a senior.

“It’s just a process, learning to do it, learning where the opportunities for her to contribute were,” Barron said of the focus on playing inside.

There have been several factors in Gustafsson’s growth, including skill development, handling more frequent contact in the paint and re-establishing confidence in her abilities.

Gustafsson, who has been a good midrange shooter, has worked hard on perfecting a handful of post moves that she can use to score consistently.

“She’s difficult to handle, especially when she really is demanding the ball and wanting to get it in there,” Steelman said.

“I think her confidence level has increased and our confidence level [in her] has increased,” he added.

Another obstacle for Gustafsson was adjusting to the pushing and banging that is part of playing under the basket. It wasn’t something she had experienced playing in Sweden.

“It was really uncomfortable,” she said. “In the beginning, it really got me out of rhythm. Back home I would think it’s a foul.”

With time, she learned to absorb contact on the offensive end and to body up to opponents on defense. Those gains were aided by better conditioning and improved strength.

An example of her growth came in a 10-point, 10-rebound performance in December against North Carolina, which is her only career double-double.

“She’s more assertive and more comfortable being aggressive,” Barron offered.

Gustafsson goes into Friday’s game having posted career totals of 725 points, 398 rebounds and 159 assists.

Basketball opened the doors to the world for Gustafsson, who estimates having visited 25-30 countries — many for basketball and others on family vacations. She noted that Maine has nothing on Siberia, in Russia, when it comes to cold weather.

She is grateful to her parents, Susanne and Mats Gustafsson, for supporting her basketball career in every way including moving closer to her high school.

“They made a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to play,” she said.

Mikaela Gustafsson also appreciates having the opportunity to attend UMaine, where she has made lifelong friends while furthering her basketball and academic pursuits.

“Maine just felt so right to me from the first contact [with Barron],” she said.

“I’ve had great experiences here and just traveling places and meeting new people gives you a lot of new experience and opportunities to grow as a person and learn about new cultures,” she said.

Gustafsson will earn a degree in sociology and hopes to pursue international development or a master’s degree in welfare policy and management.

Before joining the working world, Gustafsson plans to keep playing basketball for a while longer by pursuing a professional opportunity somewhere in Europe after graduation.

“If I can play basketball and combine that with studies somewhere, that would be great,” she said.

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...