The University of Maine women’s basketball team won’t play its first game until at least December due to the suspension of winter sports activities there because of COVID-19 cases.
When the Black Bears do play, this could be a special team.
UMaine proved last season that a winning culture, and the confidence and swagger that accompany it, are firmly in place.
Despite a rash of injuries to players, including 2019 America East Player and Defensive Player of the Year Blanca Millan (knee) and 2018-2019 America East rebounding leading Fanny Wadling (concussion), the gritty Black Bears went 18-14 overall and 12-4 in America East.
They earned a spot in the league championship game against top seed Stony Brook, but the season was halted because of the coronavirus.
Head coach Amy Vachon’s team was going for a third straight conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Millan, who appeared in six games, and Wadling, who missed the entire season, received medical redshirts and have returned for a fifth season. They are complemented by three America East second-team picks in senior point guard Dor Saar, guard Anne Simon, the AE Rookie of the Year, and senior forward Maeve Carroll.
UMaine’s likely starting five could rank among the best in program history.
Guard Maddy McVicar (10 points per game, 3.8 rebounds) is the only graduated player who averaged more than 10 minutes of play last season (33.7 minutes per game).
UMaine, the preseason choice to win the conference, has a 101-28 record against conference opponents over the last seven regular seasons. The mark is 48-8 since the start of the 2017-2018 campaign.
The question mark is whether the injured players can return to form.
The 6-foot-1 Millan is the school’s No. 8 career scorer with 1,547 points. She was off to her best start last November when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
Millan had added an inside game to her potent perimeter scoring, making her more difficult to guard. Her long arms, footwork and anticipation make her the league’s best defender.
The 5-6 Saar, a fan favorite with her ballhandling wizardry, crafty passing and court vision, became a more consistent scoring threat a year ago to complement her floor leadership.
She averaged 12.2 points per game and was fourth in the league with a .349 3-point field-goal percentage. Her 157 assists ranked 24th in the country and her 4.9 assists per game were second best in America East.
Saar, who ranked second in Division I with 1,238 minutes, 52 seconds played, is fifth on UMaine’s career assists list (411).
Carroll was forced into a much more prominent role last season because of Wadling’s absence. The 5-11 forward averaged 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds after posting 2.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game during 2018-2019.
Carroll (2.8 apg) led the conference with 11 double-doubles.
The 6-2 Wadling contributed 6.7 points, 9 rebounds and 2.7 assists two years ago and led America East with a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. She also is a good passer.
The 5-8 Simon had a terrific freshman season. The native of Luxembourg averaged 13 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists while attacking the basket fearlessly and shooting from outside.
Simon shot 46.9 percent from the floor and should be even more of a difference-maker this season.
Senior 3-point specialist Kelly Fogarty is coming off her most productive season. The 5-9 guard provided 7.1 points per game and shot 34.9 percent from the 3-point arc, third best in the conference.
Sophomore guard Anna Kahelin (3.3 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game) will be another key contributor when she returns from knee surgery. The 5-11 Finn was one of UMaine’s best defenders and is an effective rebounder.
Scrappy 6-2 forward Abbe Laurence, who only played 11 games due to a knee injury, will supply energy and physicality in the paint.
The Black Bears have five newcomers who will bring an array of skills to the program.
Olivia Rockwood, a 5-5 guard, scored 1,873 points at Windsor (Vermont) High School and was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Lexi Mittelstadt, a 5-8 guard from Wilton, was a 1,000-point scorer at Mt. Blue High in Farmington.
Alba Orois, a 5-7 guard, was twice chosen the best passer in the Spanish Championships, while 6-2 forward Katie White from Maryland led her conference in blocked shots for three seasons and averaged 15 rebounds last winter.
Caroline Borneman, a 5-10 forward-guard, is a 3-point threat who played on Denmark’s Under-18 and Under-16 national teams.
UMaine will face some quicker teams and some with a dominating center, but the Black Bears should have enough experience, tenacious defense, balanced scoring and high basketball IQs, and coaching leadership to make in-game adjustments and again challenge for the America East title.