VESTAL, New York — Once a team reaches the conference tournament, there are very few secrets between opponents.
So when the University of Maine and the University of Hartford met for the third time this season in Sunday’s America East Conference semifinal at Binghamton University’s Events Center, it came down to execution and experience.
UMaine claimed both regular-season meetings, winning 68-57 on Jan. 10 at Hartford, then posting a 63-45 decision on Feb. 8 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
That didn’t count for much on Sunday.
The Hawks were more cohesive at the defensive end and more polished and relaxed with their offensive sets in the 65-54 win against the Black Bears.
“It makes me really proud that they really took this tournament seriously, they really believed in themselves that they had a chance to win it, and they played like it,” said Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti.
The Hawks exploited the Black Bears’ defense, pounding the ball inside. Hartford scored 34 points in the paint after having managed only 24 points from inside in the two regular-season meetings combined.
“We just didn’t guard the ball,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said of his team’s subpar post defense. “We gave them too much space.”
Hartford, which shot only 31 percent in the Feb. 8 meeting in Bangor, shot 55 percent on Sunday.
The Black Bears, who had connected at 50 percent in that contest, shot only 31 percent in the AE semifinal.
Hartford, which has reached the league semifinals 10 of the last 11 years, also had a decided advantage in postseason experience.
The Hawks were able to ride strong performances by their three seniors, Cherelle Moore (23 points, 10 rebounds), Amber Bepko (14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) and role player Shanise Bultron.
That dynamic, as much as any, may have been what put Hartford over the top.
“It’s every coach’s dream, that your guys that are playing in their last tournament left everything out there,” Rizzotti said. “I just can’t say enough about what Cherelle did out there today on both ends of the court, the clutch shots that Amber’s been hitting all weekend.
“As a coach you always want your kids playing for your seniors and these kids have certainly proven that that’s what we should be doing this time of year,” she added.
UMaine was playing only its third America East tournament game in the last three seasons. While composed largely of juniors, the Black Bears have only one senior.
Courtney Anderson of Greene played 11 minutes and did not score.
Ultimately, UMaine had plenty of chances in Sunday’s game. Namely, they had ample shots.
The Black Bears attempted 58 shots in the first meeting and 48 shots in the second meeting. On Sunday, UMaine launched 72 field-goal tries, 34 of those from outside the 3-point line, but made only 22.
“I thought that was obviously one of the big differences in the game for us is we didn’t make shots,” Barron said. “We attempted 72 field goals to their 44, which shows that we played with a lot of energy and passion.”