VESTAL, New York — University of Maine fans held their collective breath during an excruciating final 17.9 seconds during Sunday’s America East women’s basketball semifinal against Stony Brook.
The third-seeded Seawolves got off three open shots from beyond the 3-point arc, but all missed, and the No. 2 Black Bears held on for a 51-48 victory at the Events Center.
Coach Richard Barron’s team (26-7) advances to Friday’s 4:30 p.m. conference championship game against Albany to determine America East’s automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament. Albany, the top seed, will host the game after beating No. 5 Binghamton 79-43.
“[Stony Brook] made runs, we made runs, but I never thought that we were going to let the game go,” said Maine junior guard Sigi Koizar, who scored 10 of her game-high 15 points in the second half.
UMaine registered its 14th consecutive win against a determined Stony Brook ballclub (17-14) that seized the momentum in the second half but could not hold it.
The Black Bears played the last 3:32 without senior forward and defensive leader Liz Wood, who fouled out after playing only 25 minutes. However, UMaine buckled down in its player-to-player defense and held the Seawolves scoreless the rest of the way.
UMaine secured its first title-game berth since 2004 playing almost exclusively player-to-player, which was what Barron said the players elected to do.
Despite picking up her third and fourth fouls during a span of 45 seconds, senior Mikaela Gustafsson had to guard Stony Brook all-conference forward Brittany Snow late in the game. Snow (14 points, eight rebounds) did not score in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t lose your aggressiveness just because you have fouls, but you’ve got to play a little smarter,” said Gustafsson (eight points, five rebounds), who didn’t allow the negative possibilities to enter her mind as the Black Bears fought to keep their season alive.
“I don’t think that’s helpful to be thinking like that,” she said. “We always talk about, we shouldn’t play scared to lose, we should play trying to win the game.”
UMaine demonstrated balance as seniors Bella Swan (seven rebounds), Wood (seven rebounds) and Gustafsson netted eight points apiece and Lauren Bodine added seven amidst an up-and-down 46-percent shooting effort. However, the Black Bears went 7-for-15 from the 3-point arc to help overcome 12 turnovers.
Stony Brook was led by Snow and freshman Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who posted a double-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Seawolves shot 42 percent (20-for-48) but were 2-for-11 from long distance.
Stony Brook trailed by as many as 13 points (25-12) in the second quarter, but manufactured a 9-0 run that carried into the third quarter. The Seawolves ended the period on a 14-5 surge and extended their lead to 42-37 on a scoop shot by Kori Bayne-Walker two minutes into the fourth.
“I thought we were executing well, got some great looks to start the third quarter and didn’t hit them, and [Stony Brook] really attacked the rim,” Barron said. “They put their heads down and just got to the basket about four possessions in a row and really got back in the game.”
UMaine responded as Swan scored from close range off a high-post pass from Gustafsson, Koizar drove in for a scoop shot, and Bodine answered an Aaliyah Worley hoop with a 3-pointer that tied it 44-44 with 6:09 to play.
The Black Bears finally went back on top when Koizar buried a 24-footer from the top at the 3:47 mark.
“I saw the shot clock wind down and [the defender] had her hands down. I had a lot of time to shoot that shot,” Koizar said.
Neither team scored again until Swan snipped a short jumper from the baseline off a pass from Sheraton Jones to give UMaine a 51-48 advantage with 2:01 left.
Stony Brook missed its last nine field-goal attempts over the last 4:18 as UMaine played tough player-to-player defense. Jones, a junior backup post player, snatched two pivotal rebounds in the last 2½ minutes.
“When Liz fouled out, Sheraton came off the bench — she hadn’t played much all year — but she didn’t feel her way through the game, she was ready, and she was getting the important boards for us toward the end of the game,” Koizar said.
The Seawolves had the ball last after a timeout with 17.9 to play, but Christa Scognamiglio failed to connect on two 3-pointers from the right corner. The second rebound was batted around and was going out of bounds, but it was saved in by Bodine.
The ball was recovered by Stony Brook and fired back out to Bayne-Walker, whose 3-pointer from the top missed as the horn sounded.
“That was when I was just about [to say], well, it’s got to go in. The basketball gods shouldn’t reward us for making a dumb play like that,’” Barron said, “and somehow they missed a third or fourth [3-pointer] in that possession, and we did win.”
The Black Bears broke the bonds of Saturday’s offensive lethargy with some well-oiled execution early in Sunday’s game. The result was a big injection of confidence as UMaine spread the scoring load among six different players and built a 28-20 halftime lead.
“This game especially was a game for us where everybody stepped up. Everybody scored, everybody rebounded,” said Koizar, on whom much of the offensive pressure had fallen on Saturday.
UMaine shot 55 percent, hitting four 3-pointers, but it committed 10 turnovers.
However, the foul trouble encountered by Gustafsson and Wood did seem to hamper UMaine’s offensive production in the second half. Koizar and Swan helped pick up the slack with some clutch baskets.