BANGOR — Amy Vachon has talked all season about how much fun it is to coach the University of Maine women’s basketball team.

After the Black Bears defeated Hartford 68-48 to win the America East championship Friday and earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, it was obvious how much these players and coaches enjoy each other.

From guard Parise Rossignol, the senior from Van Buren, saying how sharing the title with her teammates and friends makes it “even better,” to senior forward Tanesha Sutton calling her teammates her “little sisters,” the Black Bears have bonded in ways that go beyond the basketball court.

“It’s a great team,” said Vachon. “And I’m just so happy we won so we can have more practices and at least one more game.”

Maine (25-7) will find out who it’s playing – and where – during the NCAA selection show at 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN.

Vachon knows the back-to-back America East titles won’t mean anything when it comes to seeding.

“The reality is strength of schedule and RPI play a really big part of that,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you win back-to-back championships. It’s nice … but I know it has nothing to do with seedings.”

The NCAA relies heavily on rating percentage index – a formula based on a team’s wins and losses, and its strength of schedule – to determine tournament seedings. The men’s basketball tournament moved away from RPI this year but the women continue to use it.

Maine, after its victory Friday, moved up to No. 54 in the RPI standings from No. 60. It is the only America East team in the top 100.

In terms of league ratings, America East ranks 23rd of the 32 conferences.

That’s all a factor. And that’s why at least three websites have Maine as a No. 14 seed. ESPN has Maine at Syracuse. College Sports Madness has the Black Bears playing Big Ten champ Iowa. And RealTimeRPI.com has Maine playing Marquette.

Last year Maine had a No. 15 seed and was sent to play at Texas, losing 83-54.

Maine has proven it can play with big-time programs. The Black Bears lost 66-63 to Duke at home on Nov. 15 and defeated North Carolina 58-52 on the road nine days later. Maine also defeated North Carolina A&T and Penn.

But the Black Bears, playing without 6-foot-1 junior forward Fanny Wadling, lost their last four nonconference games, all on the road – against North Carolina State, Northeastern, Fordham and Chattanooga.

“We talked a lot about last year, about winning the games that we lost,” said Vachon. “Unfortunately for us we had a little hiccup at the end of nonconference that hurt us, but other than that I think we took care of business.”

Unlike last year, when Maine earned its first NCAA tournament berth in 14 years, the Black Bears were expected to be the America East champions this season. They had to learn to play with that pressure.

“We just had to stay focused and understand that it’s about each and every game, not looking ahead,” said Sutton. “Belief, being attentive to that and getting better, individually and as a team.”

It helped to have guard Blanca Millan. The junior swept America East’s top individual honors – Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and tournament MVP – and stepped up most when Maine needed it Friday.

Millan had 13 of her game-high 19 points in the second half when Maine pulled away, hitting three 3-pointers. She also finished with eight rebounds and four steals.

“There’s a reason that she’s the best player in the conference,” said Vachon. “You can argue there are other kids too, but I don’t know if anyone does what she does on both ends of the floor. She guards the best player every single night on the other team and then she leads us in scoring. That’s really hard to do. And she does it, and she thrives on it.”

And now the Black Bears have at least one more opponent to prepare for.

“I know we’re going to get a really good team whoever we get paired up with,” said Vachon. “And we’ll prepare and we’ll prepare, and we’ll give it our best shot.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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