PORTLAND, Maine — If ever there was a time the inexperience of the University of Maine women’s basketball team might be exploited, it was Sunday afternoon.
The Black Bears, though seeded No. 1 in the America East women’s basketball tournament, encountered a University of New Hampshire squad that featured seven seniors, including four starters.
It turns out UMaine had plenty of talent, determination and focus to more than make up for its less-seasoned roster.
UMaine shut down the potent inside attack of No. 5 New Hampshire, blending its 2-3 matchup zone and player-to-player defenses to register a 64-48 America East semifinal victory at Cross Insurance Arena.
Having already beaten the Wildcats twice during the regular season — and in last season’s semifinals — the Black Bears were not intimidated.
“I think our mentality was, we have to stay focused, we have to be determined and motivated,” said junior guard Tanesha Sutton, who battled underneath at both ends en route to 14 points and six rebounds.
Coach Amy Vachon’s 22-9 Black Bears earned their third consecutive trip to the conference championship game. This time, UMaine will be playing on its home court at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, in Friday’s 4 p.m. title contest.
UMaine meets sixth-seeded Hartford (19-12), which knocked off No. 2 Albany, the six-time defending league champion, 58-56 in Sunday’s second semifinal.
“Every time we play someone, we’re focused on winning,” Sutton added.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said UMaine guard Parise Rossignol, who was not a member of the team last season.
“A year ago I was watching them do this, so to have the opportunity to come back is pretty special,” added the junior from Van Buren, who scored 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting.
The Wildcats ended the season at 19-12 while its record dropped to 0-16 all time in America East semifinal games and 1-10 against UMaine in tournament play.
“It was just a tough day,” said UNH coach Maureen Magarity. “For the seniors, they just wanted it so bad and sometimes just knowing deja vu all over again. They’re a tough team, they’re younger, they’ve kind of got fresher legs.”
As they had done against Maryland Baltimore County in Saturday’s quarterfinal, the Black Bears set an early tone with their efforts on the defensive end.
UMaine, switching between zone and player-to-player, limited UNH to 3-for-17 in the first quarter. The Black Bears went 7-for-18 while manufacturing a 15-6 lead, one that it would not relinquish.
“They’re tough, they’re physical and they’re strong,” Vachon said. “They go after the boards really hard, so our philosophy was, we’re going to pack the paint, we’re going to make them hit outside shots.”
UMaine prevailed through the efforts of strong inside play by Sutton, Fanny Wadling (7 rebounds, 4 assists) and Kirsten Johnson off the bench, along with the help of guards Blanca Millan, Dor Saar, Rossignol and Julie Brosseau.
Sophomore Millan spearheaded UMaine’s balanced offense with 16 points and provided eight rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
The Black Bears shot 45 percent for the game (24-for-53) while holding the Wildcats to a 16-for-55 effort (29 percent) and outrebounded UNH 37-32 despite giving up 14 offensive rebounds.
UMaine actually outscored the taller Wildcats 20-8 in the paint.
“They really did a good job of packing it in on the post players,” said UNH senior Kat Fogarty. “They usually have one person in front, one person in the back. It’s difficult to get it inside.”
Senior guard Brittni Lai netted a game-high 17 points to lead UNH, while seniors Fogarty (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Carlie Pogue (10 points, 11 rebounds) each logged a double-double.
UMaine led 31-21 at halftime, but put the Wildcats in a hole during the first 2:03 of the third quarter. Saar (7 points, 5 assists) kicked off the run by feeding Sutton for a low-post basket and Millan drained a 3-pointer off a Brosseau feed.
Amanda Torres made one free throw for UNH, but Millan scored on a baseline cut via an assist from Saar, then Brosseau connected in the lane off a hesitation dribble to give the Black Bears a commanding 40-22 lead at 7:57 of the period.
“We felt like we could run the floor, we could beat them down the floor, especially with Tanesha,” Vachon said.
“I felt like we had an advantage there.”
UMaine scrapped its matchup zone in the second half after giving up too many offensive rebounds in the first half. UNH managed only four offensive boards in the final 20 minutes.
Sutton said the Black Bears fed off the energy of the partisan crowd, although there were a significant number of Wildcats fans in the stands as well.
“It felt really good,” Sutton said. “The energy, the atmosphere that they created for us was really good. We fed off that.”