Kirsten Johnson (left) and Tanesha Sutton (right) of the University of Maine get tangled up with Lakia Sims of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County during Saturday's America East women's basketball quarterfinal at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. The Black Bears won 65-43. Credit: Steve McLaughlin Photography

PORTLAND, Maine — Amy Vachon would have preferred that her team play 40 minutes of outstanding defense during Saturday afternoon’s America East quarterfinal against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

That said, the Black Bears’ efforts in limiting the Retrievers to 1-for-17 shooting in the first quarter served as a great start as they embark in earnest on their quest for a conference title.

UMaine’s cohesive player-to-player defense helped the regular-season champions build a 17-point halftime advantage and the Black Bears turned in a balanced offensive performance while earning a comfortable 65-43 victory over the No. 8 Retrievers at Cross Insurance Arena.

UMaine (21-9) gets a semifinal rematch at 2 p.m. Sunday against rival New Hampshire (18-12 as the No. 5 Wildcats beat No. 4 Stony Brook 71-54 in Saturday’s second game.

“I was really happy with how we played today,” said Vachon who, it was announced Friday, has signed a four-year contract to be UMaine’s permanent head coach after serving under the interim tag this season.

“I thought we came out defensively really, really well,” she added.

UMBC (5-26) was not able to solve UMaine’s stingy defense and found itself trying to dig out of a sizeable hole from the outset. Coach Phil Stern’s Retrievers wound up shooting only 30 percent (16-for-54) from the field, including 4-for-15 (27 percent ) from the 3-point arc.

“It was a tough situation for us playing in front of 2,500 Mainers,” Stern said.

“They’re (UMaine) playing at a really high level right now.”

The Black Bears also established a good offensive rhythm early as sophomore guard Blanca Millan went 3-for-3 and scored eight points in the first quarter. She finished with a game-high 21 points and contributed five rebounds, four steals and two assists.

Van Buren’s Parise Rossignol came off the bench to score 15 points and Tanesha Sutton controlled the action in the paint while providing a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds along with three assists.

Julie Brosseau added six points and four assists, and Fanny Wadling grabbed a team-high eight rebounds as UMaine outrebounded UMBC 41-35. The Black Bears shot 39 percent overall (23-for-59) and converted 12 of 15 free throws.

“We like to move the ball. We like to find the open shooter, the open scorer, and anyone can step up,” Vachon said.

Janee’a Summers led UMBC with 13 points and five rebounds, Brittani Burgess tallied seven points, 10 rebounds and six assists and Laura Castaldo added nine points.

The Black Bears wasted no time building an early lead while demonstrating the kind of confidence that helped them knock off top-seeded UNH in last season’s semifinals.

Millan scored from down low off a Dor Saar pass, sank two foul shots and hit an elbow jumper to make it 6-0 less than three minutes into the contest. Rossignol kept the momentum going with a 14-footer and Millan knocked down an 18-footer before the Retrievers got on the board with a Summers free throw at the 3:33 mark.

But Kirsten Johnson connected from the foul line and Maeve Carroll added a foul shot to give UMaine a 14-1 advantage late in the quarter.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy, because just like how we can have a (scoring) run, a team can have a run,” Sutton said. “You’ve just always got to stay focused and try not to get comfortable.”

The Black Bears used a 12-3 run during the last 4:12 of the second quarter to push their advantage to 20 points (33-13) late in the first half.

UMBC was able to get a handful of close-range baskets in the fourth quarter, but their efforts came far too late to mount any sort of a serious challenge.

Vachon sees that as a point of emphasis heading into Sunday’s game.

“In the second half our defensive intensity definitely lagged a little bit,” Vachon said. “We allowed them to get on runs and weren’t as focused in the second half as we were in the first half. As a team trying to go for a championship, you have to put together a whole 40 minutes.”

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...