BANGOR — Now, the University of Maine women’s basketball team and its fans wait. It’s that pleasant, not overly anxious wait that comes when you know the news is going to be good. It’s a Christmas Eve wait, not an MRI wait.

The Black Bears defeated Hartford, 68-48, Friday, to win the America East Conference championship for the second year in a row. With the win comes an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament. The selection show will air Monday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The Black Bears will learn their tournament fate at the same time as the rest of us.

“It’s great we were there last year, so we know what to do expect. Last year, it was just a whirlwind. Everything was new. This year, they know,” Maine head coach Amy Vachon said after Friday night’s win at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. “I know we’ll get a really good team whoever we’re paired up with, and we’ll be ready. We’ll prepare and we’ll give it our best shot.”

This will be Vachon’s sixth NCAA tournament, second as Maine’s head coach. An Augusta native, Vachon was the standout point guard for four Maine tournament teams in the late 1990s. Vachon was the point guard on the team that earned the biggest win in Maine women’s basketball history, the 60-58 victory over Stanford in the first round of the 1999 NCAA tournament.

Last season, Maine’s run through America East to the tournament was a surprise. The Black Bears had been to the conference championship game in 2016 and 2017, falling to a juggernaut Albany that was in the middle of a six year run at the top of the conference team each time. Maine’s win over Hartford in the 2018 America East final was a big step in a rebuilding process that saw the Black Bears climb from conference doormat to contender over a few seasons.

That win also brought expectations not seen in Orono in almost 15 years, since the last America East title in 2004.

“This year, everyone expected us to win it. I think we just had to stay focused and understand it’s about each and every game,” senior Tanesha Sutton said.

The Black Bears went 18-1 against America East competition, the lone setback a three-point loss at Hartford. Maine avenged that loss with a pair of 20-point wins over the Hawks, including Friday’s championship game. Against all opponents, Maine average margin of victory has been 9.5 points, an impressive number. In regular season conference games, the Black Bears almost doubled that, winning by an average of 18.1 points. Maine’s closest America East playoff game was Sunday’s 66-51 win over Albany.

For teams in a mid-major conference, reaching the NCAA tournament is the main goal. Anything the Black Bears do now is gravy. No matter happens next, in no way can this season be considered anything but a success for Maine.

That said, America East has not been a traditional pushover in the tournament. The conference has advanced out of the first round of the NCAA tournament five times, most recently with Albany’s 61-59 win over Florida in 2016. Maine was the first America East team to win an NCAA tournament game, with that win over Stanford 20 years ago. Hartford picked up first round wins in 2006 and 2008, over Temple and Syracuse, respectively, and Vermont beat Wisconsin in the first round in 2010.

This season, Maine has non-conference wins over North Carolina and Penn, two teams that could join them in the NCAA tournament field. Maine has an overtime loss to Fordham, which won the Atlantic 10 title and is tournament-bound. Those are the games that will determine Maine’s seeding, not repeating as conference champion or dominating America East play.

“Unfortunately for us, we had a hiccup at the end of non-conference (games) that kind of hurt us. Other than that, we took care of business. The reality is, strength of schedule and RPI play a really big part of that,” Vachon said. “It doesn’t matter if you win back-to-back championships. It’s nice. I’ll take it, but it has nothing to do with seeding.”

There’s a strong chance Maine’s run in America East isn’t over. Maine graduates two starters, Sutton and Parise Rossingnol, but returns a lot of talent, including junior Blanca Millan, the reigning conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

In the postgame press conference after Friday’s win, Sutton put one arm around Millan on her left, and the other around point guard Dor Saar on her right.

“I love playing with these girls,” Sutton said. “Blanca means a lot to me. She’s like my little sister. They’re all like my little sisters. Just to see her grow from her freshman year, and I know she’s going to continue to grow. The sky’s the limit. The sky’s the limit for Dor, too. She’s only a sophomore and she’s leading us to two, back-to-back championships. The sky’s the limit for Fanny (Wadling) too. They’re my sisters. I can’t wait to watch them in the future.”

With that sentiment, Sutton spoke for Black Bear fans everywhere, who know wait for Monday night, and the unveiling of the next opponent.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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