The young women’s basketball team at the University of Maine has had a remarkable turnaround.
The Black Bears went from a sixth-place finish in America East to outright league regular-season champion thanks to their 12-game winning streak.
But now it’s playoff time and the regular season is over.
UMaine needs three more wins to claim the tournament championship and earn the automatic spot for the NCAA Tournament. The Black Bears’ quest begins Saturday at 1 p.m. at Memorial Gym in Orono when the top seed hosts No. 8 seed Hartford.
UMaine went 15-3 in the league and 18-10 overall while Hartford finished 4-14 and 4-25.
In Saturday’s other quarterfinals, No. 2 Albany will host No. 7 New Hampshire, No. 3 Vermont will receive No. 6 Binghamton and No. 4 New Jersey Institute of Technology will await No. °5 UMass Lowell.
The semi-finals will take place on Tuesday with the highest-ranked winner hosting the lowest-ranked survivor and the two middle seeds facing each other on the highest-seeded court. The championship match will take place on Friday at 5 p.m.
This could be Hartford’s last game in America East, as the Hawks leave the conference after this season and move to NCAA Division III.
The Black Bears were upset by Stony Brook 64-60 in last year’s title game at Memorial Gym, affectionately known as The Pit, and didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
UMaine junior guard Anne Simon, who was named the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, said the loss gave her extra motivation.
“I don’t want this to happen again. It definitely pushes me,” she said. “But we’re not thinking about this game, we’re just really excited to start the playoffs.”
Being the top seed can bring added pressure, but UMaine grad student Maeve Carroll doesn’t see it that way.
“Nobody thought we’d be in the position we’re in right now,” said Carroll, who was selected to the All-America East second team for the third straight year. “So there should be no pressure on us.”
Amy Vachon, who was named league coach of the year for the fourth time, agreed with Carroll.
“If you can find someone who in November thought we would be where we are now, I’ll give you some money,” Vachon said.
The Black Bears said Hartford would be a formidable opponent. This will be the 11th and final time they will meet in the playoffs and they have split the first 10 games.
UMaine beat Hartford 65-44 at West Hartford on Jan. 5, but struggled with the Hawks on Feb. 16 before pulling out in the fourth quarter for a 71-56 victory.
“We were lucky to win this [second] game,” Vachon said. “They are playing very well at the moment. They have very good players. They are a good team. [Head coach Melissa Hodgdon] did a fantastic job with them.
Hodgdon is from East Boothbay.
“We’re going to have to play our best as a team and as individuals. Everybody wants to beat us so they’re going to give us their best,” added Carroll.
UMaine has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its roster and Carroll and Simon, the only returning starters, said it’s been good watching the young players develop. And they can’t wait to star in The Pit.
“Playing at home is really important. We love playing in The Pit. We’ll bring a lot of people to the game and not many teams in our conference have played in an environment like The Pit. That’s a huge plus,” Carroll said. .
Simon, who leads the league in points (16.3 ppg) and steals (2.9) and also averaged 4.9 rebounds, and AE Carroll’s leading rebounder (8.5 rpg, 10.8 ppg, 3.4 assists) were completed by third-team All-AE. league playmaker and assist leader Alba Orois (5.7 apg, 10.1 ppg) and forward Caroline Bornemann (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg).
Hartford, winner of two of its last three, includes second-team All-AE forward Paula Maurina (13.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Abby Streeter (9.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Carmen Villalobos (6.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Jabria Ingram (5.6 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.4 rpg).