It took 21 losses and then a 19-point halftime deficit against Hartford for Liz Wood to finally realize how important she was to the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
The 2012 Liberty High graduate began her college career at the University of Maine as just one of nine freshmen on the youngest team in NCAA Division I. By season’s end, she was among the best freshmen in the entire America East Conference.
Wood was named co-Rookie of the Year last week despite the Black Bears’ hindering 4-24 final record.
“It’s well deserved. She’s certainly made a big impact,” Maine coach Richard Barron said. “We’re very excited about having her as somebody we can build the program around.”
The Black Bears played better with Wood on the floor, so she started every game and led the team in minutes played at 32.4 per game.
“I never expected to have as big a role as I did,” she said. “I think it took a while to get used to that.”
Wood played well all season, but didn’t completely understand her worth as a versatile, go-to player until the Black Bears’ 22nd game.
The coaches “told me that the whole year, but it didn’t really set in for me until our game against Hartford,” Wood said. “At halftime, we were getting beaten pretty badly and I hadn’t scored. … That’s when I realized [the necessity of] if I contributed more it would help my team.”
Wood provided 15 points and six rebounds in the second half after taking only one shot before halftime. Hartford still won with ease, 82-56, giving the Black Bears’ their 22nd loss, but Maine rebounded by winning two of its final four games.
That finish included Maine’s first road win of the season, a 74-68 victory at Binghamton three days after the loss to Hartford. Wood led the Black Bears with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
Over the final four games, she averaged 16.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals.
She led all AE rookies with 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game over the course of the entire season and ranked fourth among all players in scoring (12.9) and rebounding (7.3) during conference play.
“Once she got into the league [games], she really hit her stride,” Barron said. “She has the defensive effort, she rebounded the ball well and was able to be a playmaker as well as a scorer.”
Wood’s impressive numbers earned her a share of the American East Rookie of the Year award with Shereesha Richards of conference-leading Albany. Maine finished last in the nine-team league.
“I actually thought it would just be [won by] the other girl because of just the way the season had gone,” Wood said. “It’s definitely a big honor and it’s good to have some positive feedback on my hard work.”
Despite Wood’s play, the Black Bears couldn’t overcome a slew of injuries and unique circumstances like the loss of an Israeli player called home for active military duty. As a result, Wood, a natural guard, had to play a lot in the post for Maine, often at the “4” position.
“I had to learn to use my advantages– my quickness, my footwork – because I was at a height disadvantage,” she said.
By the final game of the season, Maine was forced to play with a five-guard lineup, Barron said. So the 5-foot-10 Wood ended up playing the “5” position, or center.
“We lost all our post players. She really thrived there” the last 10 games, he said. “It took her a while to get comfortable with that role, but she meant a lot to us.”
Nevertheless, Maine finished 4-24, which included a 15-game losing streak.
Over four seasons as starter in high school, Wood’s Liberty team lost only 23 games while winning 75. The Eagles went 27-2 her senior year and played in the Group AA state final. They went 22-5 her junior year and won the AA state title.
“We’re not at that level yet with Maine, but it’s kind of a good thing,” she said. “I can have so much impact on the team and we make improvements and turn this program around.”
Wood said her first goal for next season is to simply post a winning record.
“Awards like [America East] Player of the Year is something to strive for [before graduation], but now I’m just more focused on getting our program to where it needs to be and to make a tournament run,” she said.
Maine decided not to play in the America East postseason tournament this season in Connecticut, which began March 9, after the Black Bears’ bus crashed Feb. 26 en route Boston University for their penultimate game of the regular season.
The driver suffered a medical episode, the bus crossed the Interstate 95 median and continued off they highway before hitting a tree.
All players and staff were taken to a hospital with Brown suffering facial lacerations, other staff suffering concussions and player Milica Mitrovic suffering a broken hand.
“Some people just weren’t comfortable to get back on the bus,” Wood said. “Obviously it was really traumatic.
“We’re still recovering from it emotionally,” she said, “but we had a lot of support from the community and our family. We’ll be fine.”
/ On Twitter @jeffmalmgren.