BANGOR — University of Albany women’s basketball coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee had nothing but praise for the job University of Maine interim head coach Amy Vachon has done with the Black Bears after they annexed the America East regular season championship with a 74-69 overtime victory over her Great Danes on Sunday at the Cross Insurance Center.
UMaine overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to beat the Great Danes in the battle for the league championship. Both teams were 12-3 in league play entering the contest.
“Amy did an unbelievable job with them this year,” said Bernabei-McNamee. “Their players have really stepped up. They play well together. They feed off each other like we do.”
“They play together and play as a team and that’s what you have to do to win,” said Albany sophomore guard Mackenzie Trpcic.
The Black Bears were picked to finish sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll after three-time America East first-team guard Sigi Koizar graduated and five players transferred, including four freshmen. One of them was Laia Sole, who was chosen to the league’s All-Rookie team.
“I don’t blame the coaches for doing that,” said Vachon. “We lost seven players. If I’m on the outside looking in, I probably would have done the same thing.”
UMaine usually starts three sophomores in guards Blanca Millan and Julie Brosseau and forward Fanny Wadling along with junior guard Tanesha Sutton and freshman point guard Dor Saar. Senior Kirsten Johnson is the first inside player off the bench and junior Parise Rossignol is the first guard to substitute in.
Millan, who averaged 28.2 minutes of playing time a year ago, Sutton (25.6) and Brosseau (23.4) were the only returning players who saw more than 5.5 minutes of playing time.
“This is a such a special group,” said Vachon. “They are so dedicated to each other, the program and to the coaches.
“They trust what we say and sometimes we say some crazy things and they won’t question it although Dor will question it once in a while,” chuckled Vachon. “But they all buy in. And when we saw them buying into each other, I knew it could be a special year and it has been.”
Vachon usually only plays seven players so the team isn’t very deep but she said, “any of those seven kids can produce.”
The players said the preseason poll had no impact on them.
“We didn’t let it get to us. We didn’t care about the rankings. We went out every day and played to the best of our abilities and it showed,” said Sutton.
Sutton had a memorable performance against Albany, enabling the Black Bears to rally for the win. Leading scorer Millan fouled out with 5:44 left but UMaine erased a 10-point deficit to force the extra session.
The aggressive Sutton attacked the glass and finished with a career-high 27 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
“Sutton had the game of her life. She was the spark they needed,” said Bernabei-McNamee. “And I always tell Amy that I love Millan. She is a special player.”
UMaine is in the top three in most categories in the league even though it has the league’s toughest non-conference schedule against nationally ranked Mississippi State, Ohio State and Duke.
The Black Bears are first in scoring defense (56.2 points allowed per game), field goal percentage (42 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (33.1 percent), 3-pointers made (231), 3-pointers made per game per game (8) and scoring margin (plus-9.5).
They are second in scoring offense (65.7), rebounding margin (plus-3) and assists (15).
Millan is the league’s fourth-leading scorer (17.7 ppg) and leads America East in steals (90 total, 3.1 per game) and Sutton is 11th in scoring (12 ppg), fourth in rebounding (7.2) and field goal percentage (49.8) and sixth in steals (2.0).
Millan is third in 3-point percentage (35.8) and Brosseau is fifth (35.2). Brosseau is third in 3-pointers made per game (2.3) and Millan is tied for fifth (2.1).
And the Black Bears have a sizeable advantage in attendance, averaging 1,769 per game. UMass Lowell is next at 1,026.
But the 20-9 Black Bears still have a lot of work to do with the AE Tournament’s first two rounds in Portland at the Cross Insurance Arena. UMaine will play the winner of Wednesday’s play-in game between UMass Lowell and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County at noon on Saturday and, if the Black Bears win, they will play a semifinal on Sunday.
The championship game will be the following weekend at the home site of the higher seed.
“We’ve got to keep winning. We want to get to the championship game and have it here. It would be a great environment,” said Sutton after playing in front of 3,140 on Sunday.
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