When University of Maine senior guard and reigning America East Player of the Year Anne Simon was helped off the court with a lower leg injury during a loss to Yale on Nov. 19, it appeared as though the Black Bears’ chances of winning a fifth conference regular-season title in six years were all but dashed.
UMaine had already lost senior guard and top-notch defender Anna Kahelin to a season-ending knee injury in game one after she had played in just eight games the previous two seasons due to an injury to the other knee.
Provided Simon returns from her injury, which appears likely, although no timetable has been established, the Black Bears could be even better than expected. So far, it has also forced inexperienced players to log prominent minutes. They are making some mistakes, as can be expected, but they are producing and the time will be beneficial.
Early on, they’re playing against three teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season: Kansas last Friday (76-49 loss), Gonzaga on Monday night in Washington and Princeton at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Memorial Gym in Orono.
If Simon can get healthy and return to the lineup, UMaine will have more depth and more players capable of impacting games for a different UMaine team than has been seen in recent memory.
They began the season without an established point guard after Alba Orois bolted following her sophomore year for a pro career. She followed Dor Saar, the only player in UMaine history with over 1,000 points and 500 assists before she transferred to Middle Tennessee State.
UMaine had a five-year run with All-Rookie or All-America East point guards. That position is still unsettled with freshman Jaycie Christopher from Skowhegan and sophomore Paula Gallego being the two starters there in the early part of the season.
Giveaways have been an issue. The team has turned the ball over an alarming 19.7 times per game after turning it over just 13.5 times a year ago. That is not just a point guard issue. Seven Black Bears had turned the ball over at least 10 times through the first six games entering the Gonzaga game. That has to be reduced and it will as players gain more experience.
Sixth-year head coach Amy Vachon was one of the school’s best-ever point guards. She is also one of the best coaches around, having been named the league’s Coach of the Year four times through her first five seasons.
While Simon rehabilitates her injury, the Black Bears have been led by 5-foot-10 junior forward-guard Caroline Bornemann, 6-foot sophomore forward Adrianna Smith and 5-foot-7 junior guard Olivia Rockwood. All three emerged as impactful players during the second half of last season and have continued their growth this season.
Bornemann, chosen to the America East all-tourney team, was averaging 9.5 points, 8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game entering the Gonzaga game. She has scored in double figures in nine of her last 14 games.
Rockwood is a 3-point specialist averaging 9.7 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. She has hit 37.2 percent of her 3-pointers and has had three games with at least four 3-pointers so far this season.
Smith has followed in the footsteps of all-conference players Tanesha Sutton and Maeve Carroll as undersized overachievers in the paint. She is an aggressive rebounder averaging 7.7 rebounds and 9.3 points per game with a nice scoring touch around the basket and is also a good passer.
The 6-foot Gallego was chosen to the league’s All-Rookie team a year ago and has averaged 3 assists per game along with 4.3 points. She is shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.
The player who has been the biggest surprise of late has been 6-foot sophomore guard Sera Hodgson, who poured in a career-high 22 points in a win over Niagara on Saturday. She averaged just 11.3 minutes per game a year ago but is up to 20.5 minutes and is leading the Black Bears and America East in 3-point shooting percentage (56.5).
Simon, a 1,000-point scorer who led the conference in scoring a year ago at 16 points per game, was averaging 12 points and 4 rebounds per game before she got hurt.
Christopher (4 points per game) and Windham freshman Sarah Talon (3.4 points) have looked good at times and have also had their struggles as they make the transition from high school to college basketball. But they have played aggressively and have huge upsides. Look for them to be noteworthy contributors as they gain experience.
Senior forward Abbe Laurence, whose career has been marred by injury, is finally healthy and is coming off the bench and making a difference by producing 3.3 points, 3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots in just 13.7 minutes per game. The 6-foot-2 Laurence had a career-high 5 blocks in 12 minutes vs. Niagara.
The Black Bears do not have a talented post player who can average 12 to 15 points and 10 to 12 rebounds per game to complement their productive small forwards and talented guards. That has been the case for over a decade. They will play tenacious defense as usual and should be able to hold their own on the boards in league play if they box out.
They were picked second in the preseason poll behind a stacked Albany team, which upset them in the America East title game a year ago after Stony Brook upset them the previous season. If Simon can return, the Black Bears could challenge a more talented and experienced Albany team.