Maine’s Maeve Carroll and Navy’s Kolbi Green battle for a rebound during Sunday’s game at the Portland Expo on Sunday. UMaine won, 46-41. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

ORONO — Even before the basketball season started, before Maeve Carroll knew two of the leaders on the University of Maine women’s basketball team would be lost with season-ending injuries, Carroll knew she’d play a bigger role for the Black Bears this season.

A 5-foot-11 junior from Oakton, Virginia, Carroll found inspiration from of all places, ice hockey, and Alex Ovechkin, the best player on her favorite professional sports team, the Washington Capitals.

“He works hard, and he’s a great player. I think he goes into every game and he knows he’s the best on the ice. I feel like you have to go into every game like that,” Carroll said after Tuesday morning’s practice.

Playing with a newfound confidence, Carroll is thriving in a new role for the Black Bears. Averaging 12 points and eight rebounds per game, it’s no coincidence that Maine’s fortunes improved with Carroll’s play. The two-time defending America East Conference champion, Maine goes into the conference playoffs winner of eight straight league games.

During Maine’s eight-game winning streak, forward Maeve Carroll has averaged 15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. The Black Bears host Vermont on Wednesday in an America East quarterfinal. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The No. 2 seed in the America East tournament and two-time defending conference champion, Maine (16-14, 12-4 in conference) hosts No. 7 Vermont (12-17, 6-10) in a quarterfinal game at 7 p.m., Wednesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. If Maine advances to the semifinals Sunday, Carroll will be a big reason why.

“It’s great to see the confidence in (Carroll). How she just really believes in herself. For her to have a 25 and 15 night is not uncommon these days. That’s awesome,” Maine head coach Amy Vachon said. “We expected her to have a big role coming into the year. I know none of us expected her to have the role she’s having.”

Entering the season, Carroll was one of the players Vachon looked at to step into the shoes of graduated starter Tanesha Sutton. When forward Fanny Wadling was lost for the season with a concussion in an exhibition game, and reigning America East Player of the Year Blanca Millan was lost to a knee injury on Nov. 29, against Arizona State, Carroll was one of the players asked to take on more, especially offensively.

“Going into the season, I knew no matter what this year I was going to have to step up. I did work on my offense in the offseason,” Carroll said. “With the way the season went with injuries, I had to step up. I had to start doing what I’ve been working on.”

In the offseason, Carroll worked on facing up to the basket and driving so she could create opportunities against the bevy of bigger opponents she’d face. Averaging just under 19 minutes per game last season, Carroll averaged 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. Not factoring in the injuries to Millan and Wadling, Carroll knew there was an opportunity at her fingertips, if she worked and grabbed it.

Over Maine’s eight-game winning streak to close the regular season, Carroll averaged 15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Carroll had five double-doubles in that stretch, including 23 points and 16 boards in Saturday’s 66-54 win over Maryland-Baltimore County. In a 77-53 win over UMass-Lowell, Carroll shot a perfect 7 for 7 from the floor. Over this eight-game stretch, Carroll shot 53 percent (53 for 100) from the floor, and her work on the boards has Carroll third in the conference in rebounding per game.

“One of the things we talked a lot (about) in her first two years was rebounding the ball. Offensively she could always do a good job with it. Defensively, she’d kind of lose focus a little bit. I think the majority of games this year, she’s really been locked in and focused,” Vachon said.

Junior point guard Dor Saar has noticed the improvement in Carroll’s game, and she knows good things usually happen if she gets the ball to Carroll in the low post.

“I feel like all of us felt like we had to step up our game. I think each of us did a really good job, especially Maeve. She really stepped it up. I always knew her abilities and how great a player she is. I really feel like she’s doing so much for us,” Saar said. “If you just look at her stats, she’s averaged a lot of double doubles. She always rebounds the ball. She’s making great post moves.”

Against Wednesday’s opponent Vermont, Carroll had two of her best games of the season. At Vermont Jan. 22, Carroll had 23 points and 15 rebounds in a 65-47 win. In the rematch in Bangor on Feb. 5, Carroll scored 19 points with 14 boards in a 70-59 Black Bear win.

“Teams aren’t doubling her, and I’m not sure (why). Maybe they’re afraid our 3-point shooters will knock them down. I think she’s proven that one on one she can score in the post,” Vachon said. “She had two great games against Vermont. I’d like to see her have a third one.”

Added Carroll: “I just had this huge confidence boost in my offensive game. I think that’s come from my teammates and coaches… Just with how the first half of the season went, going in the second half of conference (play), I knew I can score anytime I want to. That’s just the kind of confidence I had to go into every game thinking.”

No matter when or how Maine’s season ends, Carroll will look to carry that confidence into her senior season. It’s what Ovechkin would do.

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