To be picked sixth in the America East coaches’ preseason poll and not only capture the regular season title but also win the tournament and earn the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004 is a remarkable accomplishment for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
The fact the 15th-seeded Black Bears got steamrolled by the second-seeded University of Texas 83-54 in their NCAA tourney game in Austin, Texas, shouldn’t tarnish their feat.
The Black Bears were beaten by a superior team that UMaine head coach Amy Vachon said “could win the national championship.”
It seemed unlikely that UMaine would even earn a postseason berth.
The team graduated three-time first-team all-conference guard Sigi Koizar and then five players decide to transfer. Four were freshmen and included America East all-rookie team pick Laia Sole.
That left Vachon in a serious bind with only four players who saw significant minutes in 2016-17.
A grueling non-conference schedule that included four teams that would go on to earn NCAA berths — Mississippi State, Ohio State, Duke and Miami-Florida — gave Vachon an opportunity to experiment and establish a seven-player rotation that would go 13-3 in conference play and then win the tournament before finishing with a 23-10 record.
Vachon and her coaching staff did a masterful job getting the most out of their players.
They had the team’s only senior in the seven-player rotation, Kirsten Johnson, and she averaged only 14.7 minutes per game.
“I never doubted our talent,” the 39-year-old Vachon said. “But talent will take you only so far. You have to learn to play together and our kids did a good job of that. I’m very proud of them.”
The Black Bears were a very close-knit team that was fundamentally sound and played exceptional defense, limiting teams to 56.6 points per game.
The four returning players made significant strides and will supply the Black Bears with an outstanding nucleus for the 2018-19 campaign. They should be even better next season and could be significantly better.
Sophomore Blanca Millan and junior Tanesha Sutton are two of the best all-around players in the conference. First-team all-conference guard Millan led the team in scoring, steals and blocked shots and All-AE second-teamer Sutton, also a guard, was tops in rebounds and assists.
The 6-foot-1 Millan averaged 17.5 points per game, which is 93rd in the country and is 8.9 points per game more than she averaged last season.
She was 12th in the country in steals (99) and 14th in steals per game (3). She also averaged 5.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists and led UMaine in 3-pointers (69) and 3-point shooting percentage (35.4).
Millan was also an exceptional defender who blocked 24 shots.
Binghamton’s Imani Watkins, the America East Player of the Year, said Millan guarded her better than “anyone I have ever played against in this conference. She is really long, aggressive and really smart.”
The 5-10 Sutton was UMaine’s top rebounder for the second straight year, averaging 6.9 per game which is 2.1 more than a year ago. She also dished 2.9 assists per game, the same as freshman point guard Dor Saar. Sutton became more of a factor offensively, averaging 12.1 points per game which was nearly five more than last season (7.4). She used her quickness and athleticism to attack the basket.
Sophomore guard Julie Brosseau evolved into a more versatile all-around scorer after being a 3-point specialist her freshman year. The 5-8 Brosseau averaged 11.3 points, which was a bump of 4.5 over a year ago.
She scored more effectively within the 3-point arc. She had 58 two-pointers compared to 19 a year ago. She also had 19 more 3-pointers. Her 3.1 rebounds were 1.4 more than a year ago.
Fanny Wadling, UMaine’s vastly improved 6-1 sophomore forward, averaged 6.4 points and 5.6 rebounds after a freshman season in which she averaged 5 and 3.7, respectively. She also averaged 1.9 assists.
The 5-6 Saar did an exemplary job as a take-charge freshman point guard, earning America East Rookie of the Year honors. She contributed 5.6 points and 2.3 rebounds a game.
Junior guard Parise Rossignol from Van Buren took a year off in 2016-17 but returned and played an important role off the bench, producing 5.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game while turning the ball over only 17 times in 33 games. She won the conference’s Sixth Player Award.
Rossignol, the state’s second all-time career scorer, averaged over 11.3 points per game in her last four games and was an America East all-tourney choice. She shot 15-for-25 (60 percent) from the floor and 6-for-12 (50 percent) beyond the 3-point arc which bodes well for the future.
The 6-foot-2 Johnson nearly tripled her playing time from a year ago and gave UMaine a valuable post presence. She grabbed 3.1 rebounds and averaged 2.1 points in 14.7 minutes per game. She was also a useful defender.
Nobody else played more than 6.8 minutes per game and Vachon will need some of those players to elevate their games next season. Six-five Kat Williams, 6-3 Kira Barra and 5-11 Maeve Carroll, all freshmen, can boost the Black Bears’ inside game. Carroll appears to have good rebounding instincts and Barra has a nice shooting touch.
Junior Maddy McVicar from Calais could see more playing time, spelling Saar at point guard and freshman Kelly Fogarty could provide a capable 3-point option. Sophomore guard Sierra Tapley from Bar Harbor gives them more depth at guard.
Vachon, the league’s coach of the year, said her team must continue to “work hard every single day to get better” in the off-season.
“We need to get stronger and more consistent in everything we do,” she said. “It’s easier to go from 18 wins (2016-17) to 23 than to go from 23 to 28.”
She took the Texas loss in stride.
“The reality is they’re better than we are,” said Vachon.
“What we learned moving forward is we have to get a higher seed in the tournament to have a legitimate shot at [advancing]. It doesn’t surprise me to see 11th and 12th seeds winning but it’s tough when you’re a 15th or 16th seed and have to face one of the top eight teams in the country,” said Vachon who added that her team needs to win more non-conference games against quality opponents and not lose conference games.
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