Plymouth State’s Lauren Keller, left, and Colby’s Chiamaka Ubani battle for a loose ball during women’s basketball action Monday in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — When Chenel Harris-Smith was hired as the new head coach of the Colby women’s basketball team before the 2019-2020 season, she inherited a program that suffered through back-to-back 10-14 seasons.

As is common for a new head coach, that 2019-2020 season would have its share of struggles, as the Mules finished with a record of 8-15. Before there was a chance to make an immediate turnaround last season, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season before it could gain any legs, leaving the Mules to play just six games against local competition.

But, now, the 2021-2022 season may be the year of change. Colby has jumped out to a 7-1 record, its lone loss coming to the hands of fellow New England Small College Conference foe Bowdoin (65-44) on Saturday in Brunswick. Colby is currently fourth in the NESCAC standings. Though the Mules still have two-thirds of their schedule remaining, they’re on path to the program’s first winning season since 2016-2017, when they finished 13-12.

What has been a big part of the turnaround? According to Harris-Smith, it’s the culture.

“The culture is truly there, where they’re putting in the work outside of practice,” said Harris-Smith, a native of Mississauga, Ontario who earned all-Mid-American Conference honors during her playing career as a forward for Division I Kent State before moving through assistant coaching stops at Arkansas, Stony Brook, Binghamton and St. Francis College (Brooklyn, New York). “They play with and for each other. They care about each other. They’re doing all the things off the court that will help performance-wise on the court.”

In their seven victories, the Mules have shown the ability to win close games. They held on to a 61-60 victory over the University of New England in the season opener Nov. 13, as well as a buzzer-beating 41-39 victory (on a three-pointer by sophomore Carter McGloon) over the University of Southern Maine on Nov. 30. The Mules have also proven the ability to dominate a game, as shown in their latest victory, a 68-48 win Monday night over Plymouth State University at the new Margaret M. Crook Center.

Colby’s Carly Christofori, right, drives with the ball around Plymouth State defender Jessica Ruiz during women’s basketball action Monday in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Colby’s roster is young. There are only three seniors  — guards Keagan Dunbar, Chiamaka Ubani and Carly Christofori — while carrying seven players who are either freshmen or sophomores. There’s only one junior on the team, guard and Waterville graduate Sophie Webb.

“This team is young,” Harris-Smith said. “We only have two players that have played in a traditional year of basketball, which is untraditional for a collegiate basketball team. But I think the beauty of the pandemic year that we had, we had a chance to do a lot of culture-building. With our core of new people, we were able to build some chemistry, some togetherness. That’s carried into this season. We welcomed three new freshmen and everyone else returned, so they had a year of practice under their belt.”

“Selflessness is definitely huge for us,” said sophomore guard Caroline Smith. “We don’t necessarily have a star, so to all come out and play team basketball is essential every single night.”

Statistically, the Mules are as well-rounded as it gets. Smith leads the group, averaging 12.5 points per game. with Dunbar (10.5 ppg), McGloon (8.8 ppg) and Christofori (7.5 ppg) following. It’s a stat sheet Harris-Smith likes to see.

“That’s what I want,” Harris-Smith said. “I don’t want one role-dominant player, one offense that goes through someone. I think you’re a lot more dangerous when you have multiple scoring threats. Every game, it’s been someone different that’s stepped up for us. Caroline Smith has been phenomenal from start to finish this season, but everyone has showed up when we need them. That’s the kind of depth that I personally want, because I think it makes us hard to guard, when you have to truly scout (players) 1 through 11.”

Colby has also shown no fear in taking the outside shot, attempting 193 three-pointers thus far, making 55 (a 28.5 percent success rate).

Colby’s Natalie Gonyea, right, snatches a loose ball away from Plymouth State’s Lauren Keller during women’s basketball action Monday in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“We’re all in the gym at least four or five times a week, shooting with the shooting gun, shooting with teammates,” Dunbar said. “I think we have confidence in our shot, which is the first time I’ve really felt that on a Colby team since I’ve been here, where we have shooters (for players) 1 through 11.”

There’s still areas for Colby to improve. The Mules had a slow start Monday night against Plymouth, with the Panthers taking a 13-10 lead after the first quarter. Colby began to answer back late in the first half, but came out hot in the second half, outscoring the Panthers by 16 points before cruising to the win. Colby has also been working to improve on the boards, which was not an issue against Plymouth. The Mules pulled down 47 rebounds, while the Panthers had 21. Ubani led the Mules with 12 rebounds, and has averaged 5.8 boards per game this season. Ubani also had five steals.

“Chiamaka just came out (in the second half) with a ton of steals and a lot of defensive energy,” Dunbar said. “I think that was the main difference was just the defensive energy, from the beginning of the third (quarter) and continued throughout the second half.

“(Rebounding) has been a big focus this season,” Dunbar said. “I think we’ve progressively gotten better at crashing the offensive boards, in particular, but just boxing out. Not necessarily only boxing out, but also pursuing the rebound. That’s been a focus in practice lately, I think we’ve finally put it together on the court.”

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