Members of the University of Maine women’s basketball team huddle up during a Feb. 6 game against UMass-Lowell in Orono. Photo provided by University of Maine athletics

They were the top two teams in America East last year. They’ve been the top two teams in the conference this year.

Now, the University of Maine and Stony Brook women’s basketball teams are set to meet in the biggest challenge of the winter for both.

The Black Bears are in first place in the conference at 11-1 (14-1 overall) with the top offense in America East at 67.1 points per game. The Seawolves are in second (10-4 overall, 8-2 in the conference) with the conference’s best defense at 50.2 points allowed per contest.

They’ll meet Saturday and Sunday in the final series of the regular season, and the Black Bears have been looking forward to the matchup.

“We’re just so excited to play them,” senior guard Blanca Millan said. “We couldn’t finish last year, so we’ve been waiting for this game the whole season.”

Last year the Black Bears and Seawolves were set to meet in the America East final, but the coronavirus stopped the tournament. The teams have been on something of a collision course since, with UMaine taking a nine-game winning streak into the weekend and Stony Brook riding a five-game streak.

“It gives a lot of energy,” said Millan, America East’s top scorer both in conference play (22.0 points per game) and overall (22.7). “I know this week is going to be great, everyone really wants these games. They’re hard, but it’s just so fun. We know we’re getting closer to the end of our season. … Our seniors, we’re about to be done here, and we want to finish in a really, really special way.”

While the team has looked forward to this series, the Black Bears haven’t looked ahead. They’re coming off a sweep of third-place UMass Lowell, in which they easily won 81-49 on Saturday before edging the River Hawks 53-51 on Sunday.

Coach Amy Vachon said the season’s fickle nature has made it easy to focus on each week that comes up.

“We have a really experienced team, and we’re led by five seniors,” she said. “Going through this year, if it’s taught us anything, it’s (that) you take it day-by-day because you never know. You never know what can happen. We could find out tomorrow that we’re not playing. So we just take it day-by-day, and when game day comes we take that game as it arrives.”

University of Maine senior Dor Saar looks to make a pass in front of the UMass-Lowell defender Denise Solis during a Feb. 6 game in Orono. Maine won, 81-49. Photo provided by University of Maine athletics

Vachon downplayed the notion of the series with Stony Brook carrying more weight than the Black Bears’ previous games.

“I think each team presents a challenge,” she said. “…We’ve been fortunate with beating some teams by double digits, but throughout the league, games have been close no matter who’s playing who. I wouldn’t say any game is easy. New Hampshire beat us, I don’t think anyone expected that. Anything can happen. We’re not looking at this game any differently than we looked at this past weekend’s game or the weekend before.”

Vachon did acknowledge the challenge that this opponent will present. Stony Brook is led by India Pagan (10.8 points per game) and Asiah Dingle (10.5), and on the defensive side has made it difficult for teams to find good looks for shots.

“We’re both really good defensive teams,” she said. “I think, for them, they’re big, they kind of clog things up a lot. They do what they do, they play man. When they’re not out denying, they sit, they want you to make shots. They make you make shots. We’re going to have to do that.”

Stony Brook is the best rebounding team in the conference, but Vachon said she has seen her team make strides on the boards, particularly in last weekend’s series. The Black Bears are second-to-last in the conference in offensive rebounding, but outdid UMass-Lowell in that category 25-17 over the two games.

“I thought we did a really nice job,” Vachon said. “Hopefully, we continue with that, and we just play. We play this game just like we play every other game. It’s the one in front of us, it’s the most important one. So we’ll just go out and play.”

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