BANGOR — There was reason for alarm. The University of Maine women’s basketball team was deadlocked with Hartford at halftime of the America East final, and top scorer Blanca Millan was being held in check, with only four points at the break.

Coach Amy Vachon, however, had a feeling that was about to change.

“I’m never worried about Blanca,” she said. “The kid’s a stud. She comes to play when she needs to come to play.”

Hartford’s hopes of containing the sophomore didn’t last much longer, and neither did their hopes at the upset. Millan took over in the second half and finished with 22 points and the top-seeded Black Bears followed her lead, finishing off a 74-65 win over No. 6 Hartford to take the America East championship at the Cross Insurance Center.

It’s the first championship — and trip to the NCAA tournament — for Maine (23-9) since 2004, and the historical significance wasn’t lost on its coach.

“When someone said 14 years since we’ve gone, I was kind of was surprised at it. It just didn’t seem like that long, but it has been,” said Vachon, who helped lead the Black Bears to three NCAA bids as a player from 1997-99. “To be able to bring it back … is just really great.”

Early on, it looked as if Maine was going to have to pry the berth away from the upset-minded Hawks (19-13). The lead changed hands eight times in the first half as Hartford, which knocked off the third and second seeds in Binghamton and Albany, respectively, seemed intent on pulling off another stunner.

“We just weren’t getting stops,” said junior guard and Van Buren native Parise Rossignol, who scored 12 points. “So coming out we just wanted to focus on getting a stop, and then getting a bucket.”

That approach worked — thanks to the Spanish standout finding her form. Millan scored nine of Maine’s first 12 points of the third quarter, the last two coming on a jumper with 4:38 to go in the quarter to make it 48-44 Maine. From there, the floodgates opened. Dor Saar, scoreless in the first half, knocked down a 3-pointer. Millan buried another jumper. Fanny Wadling (10 points, eight rebounds) finished a perfect feed from Tanesha Sutton (11 points), putting the Black Bears ahead 55-44 on a 12-2 run and raising the roar from the 3,373 fans in attendance a few decibels.

“My teammates at halftime told me ‘You’ve got to let go what happened and start over,’ ” said Millan, who had 11 points in the quarter and 18 in the second half. “We’ve just got to get a stop and come back, get a stop and come back.”

The momentum had swung. The Maine players could feel it.

“Honestly, I did,” Sutton said. “But coach is always reminding us they’re probably going to make a run too.”

They didn’t. Hartford answered with a 3-pointer but Rossignol hit another on the next possession, and two Sutton free throws made it 60-47 at the end of the quarter. The roll continued into the fourth quarter, as Sutton scored on a drive, Millan knocked down a 3-pointer and Sutton finished off a pass from Julie Brosseau (16 points) to make it 67-51 with 6:38 to play.

Maine caught fire, making 12 of its first 18 shots in the second half, but the Hawks took the blame for the game’s quick shift.

“When they went on their run, we kind of fell apart defensively, and we didn’t come together,” junior guard Lindsey Abed said.

“When they went on their run and we couldn’t score, we allowed it to affect the defensive end of the floor,” said coach Kim McNeill, whose team got 13 points from Janelle Harrison and 10 from Sierra DaCosta. “That’s not who we are.”

And it wasn’t enough against a Black Bears team that wasn’t about to let its title drought add another year.

“This is so surreal,” Rossignol said. “It’s incredible.”

Drew Bonifant – 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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