LEWISTON — Allaina Murphy will notice the difference every time she shakes hands and makes eye contact with Bates College’s opponent this winter, right before tip-off.

Even on an NCAA Division III women’s basketball team, Murphy finds herself in a distinct minority: A starting center who’s an inch shy of six feet tall.

“We have kind of a young team and a small team,” Murphy said. “We’ve got to play smart and play hard.”

Anyone who has watched Murphy’s first two seasons at Bates — or any of the four winters prior to that at Saint Dominic Academy — knows that isn’t a problem.

Murphy, who cleared 1,000 career points with a year to spare at St. Dom’s, has played in all 48 games since making the two-mile trek over the Veterans Memorial Bridge to Bates.

Her first season as a full-time starter begins Friday night, when Bates travels to Castine for a season-opening tournament at Maine Maritime Academy. No pressure, but Murphy, a 5-foot-11 junior from Poland Spring, likely will look to double her minutes, scoring and rebounding and help the Bobcats emerge as a surprise team in NESCAC.

“Allaina’s probably our tallest player. A lot of players on the college level, between their sophomore and junior year is when they make the big step,” said Bates coach Jim Murphy, no relation and entering his 20th season at the helm. “We need Allaina to get us eight, nine, 10 rebounds a game. She can score. There’s no question she can score.”

While averaging 14 minutes per game each season as one of the first players off Bates’ bench, Murphy chipped in 6 points a night in her rookie season and 5.2 as a sophomore.

Two years ago, despite those closely rationed minutes, Murphy led the Bobcats with four rebounds per contest. She made those quick strides while needing time to adjust to the speed, size and intensity of a game that was a giant leap from Maine’s Class C level.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot from my high school days. It’s not just bring the ball down the court and shoot and score. There’s a lot more to the game,” Murphy said. “Defense was huge for me. Not being able to just power through people. The speed, the conditioning were huge for me. It’s a completely different game. It’s a smarter game.”

Murphy learned the low post craft from Brianna Hawkins and Taryn O’Connell, who combined for 16 points and 10 rebounds a night.

“If you’re coming from a program that hasn’t had that type of structure, and it doesn’t matter what state it is,” coach Murphy said. “It’s not that they can’t do it, but it’s, ‘My goodness, if I’m not right here, this play has no chance of working.’ I thought she played well her first two years. It’s a little bit different experience when players come in at the college level. It’s a lot more mental.”

Hawkins and O’Connell’s departure, and the graduation of 5-9 guard Allie Beaulieu, leaves Bates with voids in both the size and scoring departments.

Combine that with the loss of junior guard Molly Brown, who is out for the year after suffering her fourth collegiate concussion in a fall pick-up game, and the Bobcats desperately need everything Murphy has to offer.

“Our margin for error on everything is quite slim this year. I think we’re going to be very fast, quick and feisty,” the coach said. “We’re going to have to create a lot of offense through our defense this year. I like it when I look out there and even I don’t know what’s going on, but something’s happening.”

What could be happening is simple as a defensive rebound or a steal to trigger Bates’ fast break.

Murphy, who didn’t apply to any other schools after being accepted at Bates through the early decision process, has been working feverishly on the strength and quickness that will allow her to be in the middle of that.

“Wherever we need help,” she said. “Rebounding is going to be a big focal point for us, especially being undersized. That’s going to be a conscious effort every game to get on those boards. We have some pretty solid scorers, so I’m looking to help out however I can.”

Another major change from high school has been the commitment level required to play the game.

It has been said that Division I athletes should expect the hours of a full-time job in addition to their academic requirements. Murphy has discovered that the same might be true of Division III.

“We play all fall, five days a week as soon as we get on campus,” Murphy said.”And once practice starts, the other day we figured out we were here six hours just for basketball. We had film, so we had to get here early. It’s a big chunk out of your day. It’s exhausting.”

Worth it, though.

Especially when you’re staring down those six-foot-something foes from Bowdoin, Tufts and Williams.

“I think it’s going to be a really good year,” Murphy said. “I’m looking forward to making a much better and positive impact.”

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