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

On Feb. 14, with 10 minutes to play in a game at Stony Brook, the University of Maine women’s basketball team was one quarter of basketball from a dark Valentine’s Day gift to itself. What’s the basketball equivalent to a dozen wilted roses? A dozen turnovers? A dozen bricked layups? That’s what the Black Bears were staring down.

It didn’t happen. Maine played its best quarter of the season, overcoming a nine-point deficit at the start of that fourth quarter to take a 54-49 win and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Seawolves. That fourth quarter showed the Black Bears how could they can when they play at their best, and it ensured the America East Conference championship game would be in the Pit on the UMaine campus, rather than a journey that involves a long bus ride and ferry across Long Island Sound to play at Stony Brook.

The teams will play for the conference crown Friday at 5 p.m.

“There was a lot of emotion going on in that game. We knew in order to have a chance at the regular season championship and the one seed, we had to win one game, and we had lost the first one,” Maine coach Amy Vachon said in a Zoom interview with media Tuesday.

It was a 10-minute stretch the Black Bears know they have to duplicate for most of Friday’s 40 minutes to win the conference title and earn another trip to the NCAA tournament.

“We executed our game plan on both ends, offense and defense. With the combination of the energy we had, it really put us ahead and in great shape,” Maine point guard Dor Saar said.

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The previous day, Maine lost a close game to Stony Brook, 59-54. The Black Bears shot woefully in that loss, making just 20 of 62 shots from the field, and Sunday’s rematch didn’t start much better. Midway through the second quarter, Maine was trailing by 16 points. The Black Bears still trailed by nine, 39-30, when the fourth quarter began.

If you ever waver on the value of senior leadership on a basketball team, watch the fourth quarter of this game.

The Black Bears scored 24 points in the quarter, shooting 9 for 14 from the floor, and each of those points was scored by a senior.

University of Maine senior Blanca Millan got off to a slow start, but finished with 17 points as the Black Bears cruised to a 64-47 win over Albany in the America East women’s basketball semifinals on Sunday in Orono. Photo provided by the University of Maine

“In one of the timeouts, the seniors said we’re not going to lose this game,” said Vachon, who heaped all the credit for the game-winning rally on to her players. No fiery speech from the coach was going to work. They needed to “I did get a technical in the game, but that was in the third quarter, early in the third quarter. It was really all them. It was the seniors. It was all them.”

“We kept saying we were going to win that game. There was no doubt in our minds. Get a stop, score. Get a stop, score. That’s all we kept saying. We got this, we got this. This is our game. When our leaders talk, everyone listens,” said senior Blanca Millan, who last week was named the America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year for the second time, the only player in conference history to win both honors twice. She is one of those leaders.

The Black Bears went to a fullcourt press in the fourth quarter, and that pressure forced turnovers that became transition baskets and knocked Stony Brook off its rhythm.

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“We knew we could not lose that game. To hustle and make those plays was the difference. Obviously, the press helped us a lot. We got a couple really good steals and easy buckets,” Millan said.  “If we play 40 minutes like we did that last quarter, we’re going to be in a great, great position. It’s just on us to be focused and locked in from the first minute to the last minute, regardless of what the score is and regardless of how we’re playing.”

In Sunday’s semifinal win over Albany, the Black Bears pressed throughout the game. They know Stony Brook saw that. They also know if they continue to do it correctly, it’s going to cause the Seawolves problems even if they’re ready for it.

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

“That’s not typical of our teams in the past, but this team has done a really nice job with it. So it’s something we really look forward to doing. Hopefully it can cause some problems for (Stony Brook),” Vachon said.

That’s another thing about having senior leadership. Seniors have played enough basketball to know when they need to make adjustments. Stony Brook is not going to show Maine anything it hasn’t seen. The Black Bears know they will face tight halfcourt man-to-man defense, and guards Assiah Dingle, Anastasia Warren, and forward India Pagan will do most of the work for the Seawolves on offense.

“The thing about Stony Brook is, they are who they are. They don’t change a lot. They are who they are, and they’re going to beat you that way,” Vachon said.

To counter that, you play 40 minutes the way you played the final 10 the last time you played Stony Brook. The winner of this game moves on to the NCAA tournament. So you play as if it’s your last game, because you don’t want it to be.

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Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

 

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