ORONO — Its name is Memorial Gymnasium, but only its mother calls it that, and only when she’s really angry.

The University of Maine gym, which some would call cramped and others would call cozy, answers to The Pit. On Sunday afternoon, it hosted a conference playoff game for the first time in 28 years and one day. The University of Maine women’s basketball team beat Albany, 66-51, in front of 1,233 fans, just under the room’s (it’s not fair to call it an arena) capacity.

The last time the Black Bears hosted a playoff game in the Pit was March 9, 1991. They beat Vermont in the North Atlantic Conference championship game.

“This crowd was amazing. It was just incredible,” Maine coach Amy Vachon said.

A pit is cold and dark and scary. The Pit is none of those things. Well, maybe scary, if you were sitting in one of the old wooden chairs that creaked with every weight shift. Maybe it’s scary if your the opposing coach trying to communicate with your team. Albany coach Colleen Mullen loved the atmosphere, and in her postgame comments, made a reference to “Hoosiers,” the basketball movie set in the early 1950s. Maybe, Mullen said, I should have called the Picket Fence play.

“It’s always exciting to come to Maine. They get a great crowd. Certainly playing in the Pit, it was loud. It really gave you a tournament atmosphere,” Mullen said. “It was hard to hear, but it created energy for both teams.”

Maine’s usual home is the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, which this weekend hosted the Professional Bull Riders tour. So Sunday’s game was a one-off under special circumstances. The Black Bears will be back in the Cross Center on Friday, hosting Hartford in the America East championship game at 5 p.m., with a spot in the NCAA tournament at stake.

The most modern and nicest venue in the state, the Cross Center is the exact opposite of the Pit. The load bearing beams are built into the building there, not jutting as four posts near the center of the room. Those four posts in the Pit not only hold up the roof, they hold back time.

The Pit is a throwback. A few years ago, the University explored renovating the Pit to make it the home court of the women’s and men’s basketball programs again. It would simply cost too much to modernize the facility. So it’s a working museum. The Black Bears practice in the Pit. Occasionally, they’ll host non-conference games here, like the early season tournament the women hosted last season.

The side baskets the Black Bears use in practice do not retract. The baskets shimmied when the ball bounced off the rim throughout the game. A vast majority of the fans sit above the court, above the baskets, looking down from a steep angle at a basketball court that takes up most of the floorspace. The court looks smaller than it is.

The Cross Center holds four times as many fans as the Pit. It will be loud Friday. It won’t be as loud as it was Sunday.

“I knew it would be a good crowd. I knew it would be loud. I didn’t think it would be that loud,” Maine guard Parise Rossignol said. “Honestly, it made it hard to play defense sometimes. You can’t hear if the screen is coming.”

For a quarter, the Black Bears looked lost, as if the Pit had swallowed them instead of the Great Danes. Albany led by as many as 12 points in the first quarter, and 19-9 at quarter’s end. Maine made just four of 16 shots in the first quarter. The Black Bears didn’t shoot much better the remainder of the game, just 32.6 percent (14 for 43), but combined with a better defensive effort, it was enough to overtake Albany in the second quarter, and pull away in the second half.

“That first quarter was tough. We couldn’t stop them, and we couldn’t hit a shot,” Vachon said.

It’s hard to say what moment evoked the loudest response. Maybe it was when Maine point guard Dor Saar was fouled shooting a three midway through the second quarter. The room became silent as Saar made her three foul shots to pull the Black Bears within a point, 24-23. Maybe it was when Saar made a 3-pointer with 3:13 left in the second to give Maine a 30-28 lead, its first lead since the first minute of the game.

“I think we prepared for (noise). We knew it was going to be loud,” Mullen said, “I told the team and I told Kyara (Frames), my point guard, ‘Everybody’s got to echo, and they’ve got to look to you. If they can’t hear me, you’ve got to make sure you’re being confident and having pace on offense and getting us into what we need to get into.'”

Maybe it was loudest when Tanesha Sutton made an and one opportunity 13 seconds into the fourth quarter, giving Maine a 49-38 lead. Maybe it was when the final seconds ticked off. The point is, the Pit was loud, and the Black Bears relished it.

“They loved it. They couldn’t hear me at all,” Vachon joked.

Back in the Cross Center on Friday, the Black Bears will certainly have a boisterous and loud crowd. The atmosphere of Sunday’s game in the Pit will be hard to match. Maine fans are welcome to try.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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