University of Maine women’s basketball Coach Amy Vachon huddles with her team during a 2019 America East semifinal in Orono. The two teams will meet in the conference semifinals again on Sunday. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

It got through months of COVID-19 testing, imposed idle time and another highly successful regular season.

Now it’s conference playoff time for the University of Maine’s women’s basketball team.

“Since the season started for sure we wanted to win the regular season and win the playoffs to make it to the NCAA tournament and once we’re there our goal is definitely to make it to the Sweet Sixteen,” said UMaine fifth-year senior Blanca Millan, America East’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

“We’ve accomplished some of it but we have a long way to go so we’re not done yet.”

The next step for top-seeded Maine (16-2, 13-2 in America East) is Sunday’s America East semifinal (without fans) at Memorial Gym, aka, The Pit, against No. 4 University of Albany (7-10, 5-7). The game can be watched on ESPN+ at 1 p.m.

The other America East semifinal pits No. 3 UMass-Lowell (13-8, 11-6) at No. 2 Stony Brook (13-5, 11-3), at 3 p.m. Sunday. The conference final, with the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, is scheduled for Friday, March 12, at the highest remaining seed.

As the top seed, Maine was idle last weekend. Albany advanced by snapping a three-game losing streak, beating No. 5 New Hampshire, 49-43. Maine has beaten Albany eight straight times, including twice this season at Albany, 66-48, and 63-47, on Jan. 16-17.

“I expect a really competitive game. They play really hard and they’re a physical team so I expect a physical and competitive game,” said Maine Coach Amy Vachon, who was named America East’s Coach of the Year.

Maine has advanced to the conference championship game the past five seasons. The Black Bears lost in 2016 and 2017 to Albany and beat Hartford to advance to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and 2019. Last year’s championship game, which would have been at Stony Brook, was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has continued to cause problems this year. Just getting through the season was a challenge. Conference foes Vermont and Maryland-Baltimore County both folded their seasons in early January.

Maine had its season delayed and then took a two-week competition break from Jan. 25 to Feb. 4 when the school’s athletic teams were shut down because of COVID concerns. The women’s basketball team, however, has avoided a direct outbreak.

“People have asked, ‘How’d you do it?’ ” Vachon said. “Our kids were committed and they had leaders that weren’t going to allow anything else.”

Albany had 13 games postponed or canceled.

“I can’t say enough about how excited I am that our team gets to continue on and play Maine next weekend. To do this in the circumstances of the pandemic and all the adversity this teams faced, I feel so lucky,” Albany Coach Colleen Mullen said after her team defeated UNH.

The Great Danes had been idle for nearly a month prior to being swept by Maine in mid-January. In both games, Maine’s defense wreaked havoc, causing 22 and 19 turnovers, and shutting down Albany’s top scorers, junior guard Ellen Hahne (9.7 points) and sophomore forward Helene Haegerstad (10.8 ppg), both from Stockholm, Sweden. Haegerstad scored 14 points in the two games. Hahne, a transfer from Wake Forest, scored just four.

But with Hahne (5-foot-11), Haegerstad (6-1) and junior Lucia Descortes (6-3), Albany will have a distinct size advantage. Vachon said post defense was a point of emphasis in practice.

Maine counters with the best player in the conference in Millan, who led America East in scoring (21.7 ppg) and steals (2.94 per game) and headlines a veteran group that is 53-10 against conference opponents over the past four seasons.

Senior four-year starting point guard Dor Saar (league-best 5.1 assists, 42 3-pointers) and sophomore Anne Simon (12.8 ppg) joined Millan as America East first-team selections. Senior forward Maeve Carroll (10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds) was a second-team selection. Senior 3-point specialist Kelly Fogarty rounds out Maine’s starting lineup.

The Black Bears’ starting five has accounted for 86 percent of the scoring this season. The regular rotation has not gone much past fifth-year senior forward Fanny Wadling and quick freshman guard Alba Orois. Wadling, who missed all of last season because of a concussion, did not play in the regular season finale on Feb. 20 because of an undisclosed injury. A strong rebounder, Wadling’s availability against Albany is not yet determined, Vachon said.


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