Fifth-year senior guard Blanca Millan, the 2019 America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, will return to the Black Bears lineup after missing most of last season because of a knee injury. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Amy Vachon has not been watching much basketball lately.

“It’s been too tough,” said Vachon, the University of Maine women’s basketball coach, whose team had the start to its season delayed on Nov. 24 because of COVID-19 concerns.

That will change soon. Maine received the go-ahead to resume competition for all winter sports on Tuesday, and the women’s basketball team is first up.

Vachon’s Black Bears will finally open their season Thursday when they travel to Providence College for a 2 p.m. game. It will be Maine’s first game since March 8, when the Black Bears won an America East semifinal against UMass Lowell.

Maine will play at Rhode Island at 6 p.m. Friday.

“It’s been hard, I’m not going to lie,” said Vachon, whose team has been practicing since August. “These last two weeks have been brutal … With our players, our staff has done a great job. We go into the gym and focused on the future. We focused on our game against Providence every day.”

The Black Bears return a veteran team, one whose success last year (18-14, 12-4 in America East) was forged in adversity. Injuries tore through the lineup, leaving Maine with just eight healthy players for its last game.

Those returning include fifth-year senior guard Blanca Millan, the 2019 America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year who suffered a knee injury in the sixth game of the 2019-20 season, and fifth-year forward Fanny Wadling, who didn’t play last season because of a concussion.

“It’s great to have so many players back who have played a lot of minutes,” said Vachon. “Last year at this time, the only player who was actually playing who had played was (point guard) Dor (Saar). The rest of them hadn’t had a lot of minutes, so we went through a lot of growing pains. This year, every returner has started a game. There’s a lot more experience. We’ll see if that helps.”

Maine returns 80 percent of its offense from a year ago, and Millan’s return is sure to boost the team both on offense and defense. Saar (12.4 points, 4.9 assists last year) is one of the league’s top point guards, and sophomore Anne Simon was the America East Rookie of the Year after averaging 13.0 points and 5.2 rebounds.

Sophomores Anna Kahelin and Abbe Laurence are also expected to play significant roles.

“I think we have a solid 13 players on our team,” said Vachon. “On any given night, I feel someone different can step up.”

Providence has already played six games, going 3-3. The Friars, who are 6-0 against Maine, will have a height advantage, starting 6-foot-4 Alyssa Geary and 6-3 Mary Baskerville. Maine will start four guards, and its tallest players are the 6-2 Laurence and 6-1 Millan.

“I think the biggest challenge, honestly, is trying to manage our emotions the first five minutes of the game,” said Vachon. “Our team is going to be super excited and ready to go. The first five minutes may be a little interesting to watch. Hopefully we can weather that storm.”

There is also the matter of going on the road. While it is often a team-bonding experience early in the season, traveling will be vastly different this year.

The team will take two buses to Rhode Island to make sure everyone is physically distanced. There will be no sit-down meals in restaurants; instead, everything will be to-go. Players are assigned roommates and cannot visit other rooms.

While Maine’s players have been wearing face masks in practice since August, they get to play games without them. Those on the bench, as well as coaches, must wear face masks throughout the game.

Vachon said her team has shown it is willing to do whatever is needed to play.

“This is not about just us being safe,” she said. “It’s who we interact with. The kids are making hard decisions. People aren’t going home for Christmas. That’s tough. But this season means so much to them that they are willing to do whatever they have to do.”

NOTES: UMaine announced a schedule change Wednesday, adding a game at Northeastern on Dec. 20, at noon. And instead of playing Hartford at home on Dec. 19 and 20, Maine will now open its America East schedule at Hartford on Dec. 22 and 23. The move to Hartford was made because the indoor gathering limit in Maine of 50 people would make it difficult for the Black Bears to hold any home contests, according to Tyson McHatten, UMaine’s senior associate director of athletics, external operations and communications.

Maine now isn’t schedule to play at home until Jan. 9 against New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Mike Lowe — 207-791-6422

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Twitter: @MikeLowePPH

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