University of Maine guard Blanca Millan looks to make a pass as Rhode Island sophomore Yanni Hendley defends during a Dec. 11 game at the Ryan Center in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Photo provided by University of Rhode Island athletics

University of Maine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon can’t pinpoint specific instances in which her team has showed its mental toughness during this oddest of seasons. But Vachon knows that the team’s mental toughness is there. It’s like gravity, doing its work silently.

The Black Bears (12-1 overall, 9-1 in the America East Conference) have played just two home games his season. Maine is scheduled to play its final two home games this weekend, hosting UMass-Lowell (9-6, 8-4) for conference games Saturday and Sunday.

Maine — which sits alone a the top of conference — has endured a challenging season, with some games postponed and others canceled. The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually everything except the game on the court.

During these times, Vachon points to the leadership provided by the team’s five seniors in building the mental approach that has set the tone this season.

Vachon pointed at fifth-year seniors Blanca Millan and Fanny Wadling — as well as seniors Dor Saar, Maeve Carroll, and Kelly Fogarty — as the backbone of the team.

“The entire year has just been really hard. To have veterans, to have five seniors who have been through it, they’re able to lead,” Vachon said. “The expectations on our team, the decisions they’re making off the court and on the court are pretty high, and that comes right from the seniors. They want to keep playing, so it starts with them.

“Being on the road as much as we have, I think with a younger team that would have been really difficult. Not that it hasn’t been difficult, because it has. Having experienced players definitely helps that. There’s no doubt with our experience, that’s been very beneficial this year.”

This could go down as the best senior class in program history. The return for a fifth season by Millan and Wadling after each missed most of last season with an injury gave the Black Bears an infusion of talent and leadership. Millan recently scored her 1,800th career point and is now the fifth all-time leading scoring at Maine.

University of Maine senior point guard Dor Saar maintains possession of the ball while scanning the action during a game earlier this season at the University of Hartford. Photo provided by University of Maine athletics

Saar set the program’s career 3-pointers made mark in Maine’s win at Albany Jan. 17. After being a starter her entire time at Maine, Wadling adapted quickly to her new role off the bench this season. Fogarty and Carroll improved over their first two seasons, from seeing little playing time to becoming key starters.

“It’s a special class, it really is. Fanny and Blanca coming back for their fifth year, so that kind of changed the class. To end up with these five seniors together, they’ve accomplished a lot. Individually and collectively as a unit, and have made their mark on our program for sure,” Vachon said. “Their journeys have all been very different, and I think it’s great. I think for young players to see that, yeah, some people do come in and play right away. Some people don’t. That doesn’t mean you give up. That doesn’t mean you transfer out, necessarily. That doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It just means, you know, you’ve got to work.”

This weekend’s series against UMass-Lowell kicks off a tough four-game stretch for Maine against two of its biggest rivals for the America East title. After hosting the River Hawks this weekend, Maine is scheduled to play at Stony Brook (10-4, 8-2) on Feb. 13-14. Vachon said the Black Bears haven’t thought about Stony Brook yet. Instead, the Bears are focused on keeping UMass-Lowell — which averages just over a dozen offensive rebounds per game — off the boards.

“They rebound the heck out of the ball. They press. They change up defenses. They really male you work on the offensive end. For us, rebounding is just huge. It’s going to be the biggest thing moving forward. They killed us on the boards in all three games last year. We have to make that a priority this weekend,” Vachon said.

This weekend the Black Bears will also honor their five seniors in what will be their final home games.

“It definitely won’t be the same, because their families won’t be here, but we are going to try to make it very, very special for them in the best way we can,” Vachon said.

The team also is honoring each senior this week on its social media feeds, with a video one of the seniors released each day. Monday’s senior recognition video featured Carroll. Tuesday’s video honored Saar.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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