University of Maine players celebrate their 74-65 victory over Hartford on Friday night in Bangor. The win gave them the America East title and a spot in the NCAA tournament – their first berth since 2004. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

BANGOR — The University of Maine players waved their hands up, and like an orchestra obeying the maestro, the Cross Insurance Center crowd followed the cue, making a deafening roar. The cheers continued as the nets were cut down and a large trophy was handed out.

The moment created flashbacks to when others wore Maine’s white and blue uniforms – names like Blodgett, Cassidy, and yes, Vachon.

The Black Bears are champions again. For the first time in 14 years.

Maine held off the University of Hartford, 74-65, Friday to win the America East Conference women’s basketball tournament championship before 3,373 appreciative fans and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The team will find out Monday night who and where it will play when the tournament begins.

It was the largest crowd for an America East title game in 20 years, when 3,578 filed into Alfond Arena on the Maine campus in Orono to watch the Black Bears take the 1998 title. That game featured All-American Cindy Blodgett, a game-winning shot by Jamie Cassidy and sophomore point guard Amy Vachon, who directed the team like the basketball veteran she was.

And still is.

Vachon is now the coach of these Black Bears, an official title she received a week ago when the interim tag was removed on the same day she was named America East Coach of the Year.

“This past week-and-a-half has been a whirlwind,” Vachon said. “It’s incredible. Words can’t express it.”

Vachon, the 1996 Maine Miss Basketball from Augusta’s Cony High, is a perfect fit for this program – a Mainer who knows basketball, and this state’s proud tradition.

The bench starts to celebrate UMaine’s win. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“Women’s basketball at Maine is so special,” she said. “The history … and it’s been a long time since we’ve won a tournament championship and gone to the NCAAs.”

Maine last reached the NCAAs in 2004, which followed the Blodgett-Cassidy-Vachon domination from 1995 to 2000.

“When someone said 14 years since we’ve gone, I was surprised at that. It just doesn’t seem that long,” Vachon said.

“To be able to bring it back, especially for the fans and the university and everyone that supports us so much, it’s just really great.”

After the game, Vachon stood on the court holding the trophy and watching her players cut down the nets. But she was constantly interrupted by well-wishers, fans wanting to shake a hand, give a hug, pose for a picture, then have their kids pose with the coach. Through it all, Vachon smiled and thanked them for coming.

Kirsten Johnson, the lone senior on UMaine’s roster, gets the honor of cutting down the net. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Always amiable.

And calm.

At the tip-off of Friday’s game, Hartford coach Kim McNeill stood up straight on the sideline, arms folded, intense stare. On the other end, it took a second to locate Vachon. She sat on the bench between her assistants, her head resting on her right hand.

When Maine made a turnover on its first possession, Vachon was standing, calling freshman point guard Dor Saar over for a conversation.

“Coach Amy really helps me to understand the game,” Saar said.

From one point guard to another. But Vachon was not reminiscing.

“There are no flashbacks for me. That’s another lifetime … over and done with,” she said.

Vachon expects to hear from former teammates – “but to be honest, I haven’t checked my phone all day.”

She was in contact with her former coach, Joanne P. McCallie. Now at Duke, McCallie called and sent a note.

It was McCallie who relied on Vachon, her point guard, to break down a team’s defense.

On Friday, it was Vachon the coach figuring out ways to beat Hartford’s defense, especially the Hawks’ press.

“Breaking their press, (Vachon) knew where to find the open player,” said Parise Rossignol, the junior guard from Van Buren. “The adjustments she made were huge.”

And when Hartford did steal the ball …

“The first thing she did was tell us not to over-react when they made a run,” Rossignol said. “She told us to calm down.”

They did. And they won. And soon they weren’t so calm, jumping into each other’s arms. It is an eclectic group – from Maine to California, and five foreign countries – that came together.

Blanca Millan, a native of Spain, and Fanny Wadling, from Sweden, held the trophy and broke out into a rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

Vachon smiled through it all. She had a message for her players:

“It’s not easy. It just doesn’t happen, to win it. Just enjoy it. Enjoy the next two days. Enjoy the selection show (on Monday),” she said.

“Then we get back to work. We’ll get back to work and we’ll be ready.”

Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH

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